School project brings greater unity to Columbia parishes

Portable classrooms to be consigned to the past


Construction worker Bill Myers gently hoisted the crucifix into place over the new entrance to Our Lady of Lourdes Interparish School (OLLIS) in Columbia.

“Lift high the cross!” called out Father Paul Clark, associate pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes parish.

The crucifix has two sides, reminding all who enter, leave or drive past the school of the supreme price their Savior paid for their salvation.

“Jesus hung on a cross and died for our sins,” said Principal Elaine Hassemer. “He is our whole reason for being here. We honor Him by helping young people learn to love Him and become everything He wants them to be.”

A long-awaited, $6.6 million expansion and reconfiguration of the OLLIS complex is nearing completion.

It stands on land once occupied by an avenue of portable, temporary classrooms.

When completed this fall, the addition will include 12 new classrooms, a writing lab, a creative interactive learning environment known as a “makerspace,” multiple small teaching spaces, and a new media center and school office.

The brickwork matches the nearby Our Lady of Lourdes Church and the Our Lady of Lourdes Education Center in the church’s lower level.

The completed complex will offer enhanced security and 21st-century functionality for the 625 students in grades kindergarten through 8, and for those who teach them and form them in the faith.

“Whenever I walk into this new space, I’m so grateful to the parishioners who have supported this project and are making it a possibility,” said Mrs. Hassemer.

Practical and aesthetic

Our Lady of Lourdes parishioner Jay Burchfield, a member of the construction committee for the project, said the completed building will be functional and beautiful.

“The site we chose for the addition is front and center and sets up a bold new identity for the school,” he said.

Designed by Simon Oswald Architecture and built by Professional Contractors & Engineers (PC&E), both of Columbia, the 24,000-square-foot addition incorporates advanced technology and upgrades to the mechanical, electrical, plumbing, lighting, and heating and cooling systems.

It includes enhanced security and a FEMA-rated storm shelter with room for all of the students and faculty.

Updates to the existing school and rectory renovations are also part of the overall project.

“Through extensive planning, this addition will provide a truly functional learning space for children for the next 50 years or more,” said Mr. Burchfield.

Hidden treasures

Mrs. Hassemer described the past 16 months of construction as “a unique adventure.”

“We’ve unearthed some interesting things along the way,” she said. “We’ve found some treasures that we’ll be holding onto and some that we’ll be passing along for someone else to use.”

The kindergarten through fifth-grade classrooms have now been moved to their permanent locations.

The other grades will be in temporary quarters until their classrooms are ready in a few weeks.

The school has four sections of first and second grade, and three sections of 22 to 25 children per grade level above that.

School begins on Aug. 13.

“We have to pray”

Mrs. Hassemer said the goal is for every child who graduates from OLLIS to be ready for the next phase of his or her life, in keeping with what God wants for them.

“They follow the commandments and know right from wrong,” she said. “They make good choices. They know about being merciful and helping others. They have learned about the Corporal Works of Mercy by doing them, and they carry that into the rest of their lives.”

This making of disciples takes place in partnership with the students’ parents and the rest of the Church.

“Our purpose in Catholic education is to support parents in their role of helping to develop that child,” said Mrs. Hassemer. “That’s something we agree to every time a child is baptized.”

A parent of a student recently told her about having to pull over in traffic so an emergency vehicle could get through.

The child said, “We have to pray!” — then offered a spontaneous prayer for the first-responders and the people they were going to help.

“That’s when I knew for sure that my child is in the right school,” the parent told Mrs. Hassemer.

Unity in the community

Students and support for OLLIS comes from Our Lady of Lourdes parish and from neighboring Sacred Heart and St. Thomas More Newman Center parishes.

“None of this would be happening if we didn’t have the support of the Catholic community and donors who believe that Catholic education is important,” Mrs. Hassemer noted.

For years, Our Lady of Lourdes parish set aside money to go toward expanding and upgrading the school.

Beginning in 2016, people from all three parishes made pledges to the “Funding for a Faithful Future” capital campaign.

Pledges and contributions are still being accepted.

Families sustain the school with their tithes. Volunteers help maintain it and assist in setting priorities.

Mrs. Hassemer marvels at how everyone on the OLLIS faculty and staff looks for creative, effective ways to teach while keeping costs down.

“I’m really humbled by what we’re able to do on a relatively modest budget,” she said.

A new creation

Father Christopher Cordes, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes parish, said this project is essential to the school’s long-term success.

He was quick to thank everyone who has worked, given, prayed and helped with this project in any way.

He believes the project and the capital campaign have brought Columbia’s three parishes closer together, uniting the faithful in their commitment to Catholic education.

He pointed out the goal of this and every other Catholic school is “to educate and form the whole person, with faith and spirituality at the center.”

Mrs. Hassemer reiterated the Church’s teaching that parents are the primary educators of their children.

“But every time a child is baptized, we as a community say we will support the educational and spiritual development of that child,” she said.

Now entering her seventh year as principal, Mrs. Hassemer believes every day she gets to spend in this uplifting, faith-filled environment is a gift from God.

“Being here doesn’t just help the children grow in their relationship with God, it helps us adults, too,” she said. “And I think it also spills over to our parents and our families.

“We all grow, together.”

Always getting better

Mr. Burchfield, who works in real-estate development and construction management, is also president of Fr. Tolton Regional Catholic High School’s school advisory board.

Two of his children are OLLIS graduates, and two more will be in sixth and seventh grades this year.

He and his wife send their children to OLLIS and plan to send them to Tolton Catholic in order for them to have an excellent Catholic education.

He believes anyone who has access to a Catholic school should make it a priority for their family.

“If your faith is important to you and you want it to be important to your children, then you want it to be part of every aspect of their education, especially during their formative years,” he said.

Providing that kind of education requires a lot of commitment from everyone, including families, school personnel, the parishes and the community at large.

“It’s something you have to work on every day,” he said. “There are always challenges, and we always need to be getting better at what we’re doing.”