St. Agnes celebrates $10 million gift for new activities center

Donation will help build activities center at St. Paul Catholic school.

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Sister Mary Kathleen Roth, a first-grade teacher at St. Agnes School, was among the hundreds on hand who applauded the surprise $10 million gift.

Photo: Richard Sennott • rsennott@startribune.com,

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Seven years after being saved from possible closure, St. Agnes School in St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood celebrated Thursday the prospect of being around for “generations to come.”

Such was the promise accompanying news that the 125-year-old school soon would see construction of a $16.7 million student activities center — a project made possible largely through the largesse of St. Paul philanthropists John Nasseff and Helene Houle, who came to the school’s rescue in 2007, as well.

Their commitment to cover more than $10 million of the facility’s costs is “one of the largest single gifts ever” to a Catholic school in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, said Jean Houghton, director of constituent relations at St. Agnes.

Her announcement of the gift and building project came in surprise fashion Thursday afternoon in a sticky gymnasium filled with students, parents, staff members and church leaders. One, the Rev. Mark Moriarty, the school’s superintendent, reaffirmed for attendees that the center will come with a feature many take for granted — air conditioning.

Nasseff, 90, did not attend the event, preferring instead that the attention go to the school and to its former superintendent, the Rev. John Ubel, for whom Nasseff and his wife bestowed the gift.

It had been through discussions with Ubel that Nasseff, a West Side native who grew up poor and made his fortune at West Publishing, stepped up seven years ago to help save the struggling school. Then, enrollment was on the decline, and the high school side of the K-12 operation had piled up $1 million in debt.

Since then, St. Agnes has increased its enrollment by 40 percent, drawing students from 74 ZIP codes, Houghton said. The turnaround, she said Thursday, could be attributed to a rededication to academic quality.

In 2012, the school was recognized as one of the nation’s top 50 Catholic high schools by the Cardinal Newman Society of Virginia, which also places strong emphasis on a school’s commitment to its Catholic identity.

Despite his giving nature, Nasseff, whose name is on a heart center at United Hospital in St. Paul, is no easy touch. The commitment to the new student activities center — complete with expanded gymnasium and 400-seat auditorium — came only after he was assured that the school wasn’t “throwing good money after bad,” Houghton said.

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman applauded the news.

“Investing in our children is essential to ensuring a healthy, educated and vibrant community,” he said Thursday. “This generous contribution will have a significant impact on kids and families in our community.”

Tentative plans call for the center to be completed by the fall of 2015. That will be too late for Joe McDonald, a 2014 graduate who attended Thursday’s announcement, to enjoy. But he could attest to the benefits of replacing the multipurpose Bandas Hall.

There, as a basketball player, he knew the dead spots on the gym floor. He knew, too, what it was like to be a baseball player on a team trying to share space in inclement weather with high school actors preparing to stage the annual spring musical.

This year, McDonald did double duty, playing baseball and assisting with production of “High School Musical.” Backstage, he recalled, it could get quite warm, making air conditioning “the cherry on top” of the coming building project.

Though he since has graduated, McDonald vowed to be back.

“St. Agnes is always home,” he said.

The bond between student and school is clear: McDonald lives in Eden Prairie — 24 miles from St. Agnes and Frogtown.

 

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  • Terri Bieniek of Roseville graduated in 1964 from the school and has four children who went there. The gift is the latest from John Nasseff and his wife, Helene Houle, to the 125-year-old school.

  • Jean Houghton from St. Agnes School announced the $10 million donation Thursday, calling it “one of the largest single gifts ever” to a Catholic school in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

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