Three years ago St. Angela School went through a radical facelift and is now home to one of the biggest green park spaces in the North Austin neighborhood.
Up until 2006, St. Angela was part of an active parish, on a traditional Catholic campus including the church, school, convent and rectory. For decades, priests and nuns lived on campus and served a robust Catholic parish community, including the families of over 1,200 children enrolled in the school. Over the years, though, the neighborhood evolved and most Catholic families moved out of Austin. The parish population began to dwindle, eventually leading to the decision to close the church.
The church was shuttered in 2006 and sat vacant until 2017 when the Archdiocese of Chicago decided to demolish the empty parish buildings. The demolition opened up nearly an acre of open space, which was turned over to the school for an outdoor recreational area where students could safely play and learn. Prior to the creation of St. Angela School’s “Green Dreams,” as the project was named, older students were only able to play on a portion of the parking lot; younger students had a small playground.
Wittenberg was principal of St. Angela during the demolition and was instrumental in the development of the campus.
“In a sense, it transformed the school and it transformed the neighborhood. Our kids love it. The neighbors love it. To a large degree, it is the only green space in the area,” he said.
Once the unused buildings were demolished, landscape designer Tari Delisi joined the project to beautify the newly open space next to the school and bring the “Green Dreams” plan to life. The plan included laying new sod on the open field, creating multiple outdoor classroom areas, a garden, fitness area, and lining the garden with bricks with engraved dedications to former faculty, staff and classmates.
Delisi, whose focus is environmentally sustainable landscape design, said that she felt a responsibility to do the project from an ecological perspective while honoring the history of St. Angela Parish.
“I wanted to tell the story of the buildings that were once there, along with what the land is going to become for the community, the students, the faculty, and the school space itself. I wanted to reuse and repurpose anything and everything possible and hold onto some historic relics to tell the history of the space,” she said.
Delisi did just that, and parts of the former church are integrated into the landscape design. Limestone slabs offer bench space near one of the outdoor classroom areas, the cornerstone from the church has been incorporated into a newly tuckpointed school wall, and a statue of Saint Angela, a relic saved from the church demolition, stands in a garden.
According to Delisi, green space is crucial for students, as “it provides the framework for further development, learning and connection to the natural environment.” Time in nature provides students a break from long hours sitting indoors and offers the opportunity for them to develop respect for the environment.
While most of the “Green Dreams” renovations are complete, plans are in place to include a large mural on the school wall which was previously hidden by the enormous church; shade for outdoor classrooms and outdoor fitness equipment.
One of the highlights of the new outdoor space is the introduction of a memorial brick program. Friends of St. Angela — alumni, donors, teachers, neighbors — can purchase bricks in various sizes and inscribe them with their names, graduation years or other messages that convey the message of what St Angela has meant to them. The bricks are “planted” twice per year, and according to Lynn Fredrick, director of advancement at St. Angela, the bricks “give alumni the opportunity to be involved in a way that is meaningful to them, so they can buy their own little piece of our campus—their message literally ‘carved in stone’.”
While the demolition of St. Angela church was not easy for many alumni and former parishioners, many of whom remember St. Angela Church as an important part of their childhood, Fredrick sees the renovations as the next life of St. Angela and as an opportunity to focus on the current mission of the school.
“The only ministry left to the St. Angela community is this school and these children, so we have a new narrative now as to our purpose. Why not build something equally new and beautiful for these kids and for the neighborhood?”
—LUCIA WHALEN, Contributing Reporter
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