A formerly neglected corner of the St. Joseph School property in Westphalia is now filled with life and activity, purpose and potential, thanks to hard work and some generous donors.
Vibrant murals adorn portions of the concrete retaining wall around the school playground, along with wrought iron benches and tables and neatly constructed terraces made of stones that match nearby St. Joseph Church.
New steps of concrete lead down the hill to a set of outdoor Stations of the Cross arranged inside an oval-shaped walkway.
“This used to be all grass and weeds,” Principal Tammy Ogden noted. “There was nothing down here, just an overgrown hill that no one could use.”
Mrs. Ogden said that when she arrived as principal in 2015, she quickly discovered how much love and commitment the local community has for the parish and school.
Excited by the beauty surrounding the hilltop locale, she starting looking for ways the students could experience education in a more natural setting, “not just surrounded by walls, books and technology.”
“I had heard of schools having outdoor classrooms and was always intrigued by them,” she said.
She shared that idea with members of the faculty. Excitement mounted, with each new idea leading to the next.
All they needed was money. Mrs. Ogden was certain the funding hurdle could be overcome, but she didn’t know how.
The previous winter, Paul “Arty” Luebbering, a lifetime St. Joseph parishioner, had died at age 46 in a car wreck.
“Arty was an avid gardener and loved kids,” Mrs. Ogden noted.
She talked to his sister, Joyce Brandt, who is a parent, volunteer and substitute teacher at St. Joseph School, about getting the outdoor classroom started in Mr. Luebbering’s memory.
“Joyce was excited and shared the idea with her family,” said Mrs. Ogden. “The outdoor classroom and memorial garden started taking shape.”
Once the idea became known, families and friends began making contributions in memory of loved ones who had died.
Businesses donated money and materials, and many volunteers stepped forward to help with the work.
The amphitheater came into being in June 2017.
“Midwest Block & Brick and Corey Jaegers and his crew worked tirelessly to build this beautiful seating area,” said Mrs. Ogden.
Next came clearing the hillside and installing the paved walkway and Stations of the Cross.
“Many volunteers came and laid the framework for the concrete walkway after clearing the hillside,” she said.
An old pipe that once connected fire hydrants on the church property to a long-gone pond at the bottom of the hill had to be removed.
“Fortunately, they never had to use it,” said parishioner Leo Schaefer. “It was no longer needed when the water system came through.”
Mr. Schaefer created the bases and stands for the Stations. University of Missouri student Hannah Kloeppel, a St. Joseph School graduate, painted the murals, depicting a field of spring flowers, a bright blue sky and a sunrise with a cross in the middle of it.
Decorative lettering spells out: “Those we love don’t go away. They walk beside us every day.”
Another caption, inspired by the book, Only One, reads: “There is only one you in this one great big world. Make it a better place.”
Last year’s sixth-graders planted flowers nearby as a service project.
Tables and benches were donated in memory of friends and loved ones.
Eleanor Kloeppel had a weathervane made in memory of her husband, Norman, who loved blacksmithing.
“So many dedicated people contributed in various ways to help us enjoy this beautiful space,” said Mrs. Ogden.
Students have spent time in the outdoor classroom, reading, conducting science experiments and taking in the beauty of God’s creation.
They have gathered outside to pray the Stations of the Cross during Lent.
“We have so much more we would like to do, but we are definitely at a point where this can be enjoyed by anyone who wishes to spend some time here,” said Mrs. Ogden.
Plans call for a butterfly garden, a perimeter of native Missouri plants, raised beds for students to grow vegetables for the school lunch program, and more.
“We want the students to be involved with taking care of this beautiful area and to learn from hands on experiences,” said Mrs. Ogden.
She would also like to see a more accessible entrance to the prayer garden created for people who cannot climb down the stairs, an outdoor projector and movable screen for the amphitheater, and pavers in the shape of a rosary in the prayer garden.
She reiterated that no parish money has been used to build the outdoor classroom or prayer garden.
“It’s all donations,” she said.
Way of the cross
Parishioners gathered Sept. 15 after Saturday evening Mass to honor the patrons and dedicate the reclaimed site to God.
Father Anthony Viviano, pastor of St. Joseph and of St. Anthony of Padua parish in Folk, offered prayers of blessing and sprinkled the new facilities with holy water.
Turning to the prayer garden and Stations of the Cross, he asked God to “draw near with Your mercy to Your faithful people who devoutly recall the mysteries of Christ’s passion. Grant that those who follow in His footsteps in bearing their cross patiently may receive as their reward the vision of Christ in His glory.”
Mrs. Ogden thanked everyone who had donated money, time, supplies and talent to this project, especially the families of Mr. Luebbering; Ed and Marie Stuckenschneider; Mr. Kloeppel; Lonnie and Joann Nilges; and Joe Massman.
“These families have worked hard to help with the planning process and financially, to see this area become a reality,” she said. “We honor them by putting it to good use.”