Noe Valley Voice December-January 1997-98

St. Paul's Starts Building New School

By Erin O'Briant

The wrecking ball began razing the former St. Paul's Intermediate School at the corner of Church and 29th streets on the morning of Monday, Nov. 10. The 81-year-old building is being cleared to make way for a new school, housing students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

Construction will continue for about a year, at which time St. Paul's elementary students, now attending classes in the old St. James School on Fair Oaks Street, will return to a brand-new campus.

The modern school will feature nine computer-ready classrooms, a fine arts room, a media resource center, a full-service kitchen, and a large multipurpose room that will also serve as a gymnasium. Michael Stanton, a member of St. Paul's Parish, is the project architect.

St. Paul's officials originally hoped to retrofit the existing school rather than tear it down. But the cost for seismic upgrading rose to over $4 million. "We would have spent $4 million," explained Sister Maureen O'Brien, director of St. Paul's retrofitting campaign, "and we'd still have 81-year-old plumbing." Because the estimate for a new school was only half a million more ($4.7 million), it made financial sense to demolish the old building and put up a new one.

It was four years ago on Nov. 16, 1993, that the San Francisco Catholic Archdiocese threatened to close St. Paul's Parish altogether, citing a lack of funds to bring the church's large complex of buildings up to earthquake safety standards. But parish members and Noe Valley residents protested so strongly that the archdiocese gave St. Paul's a second chance -- and a gift of $1 million to launch its fund drive.

Since then, the convent behind the intermediate school (1660 Church St.) has been retrofitted, and the nuns who lived there -- members of the novitiate founded by Mother Teresa -- have moved back in. The former St. Paul's High School and another convent on 29th Street have been sold. (The new owner and developer, Monahan Pacific Corporation, is in the process of building condominiums, which should be ready for purchase in June of 1998.) And according to realtor B.J. Droubi, the last church property on the block -- St. Paul's Primary School at 300 Valley St. -- will soon also be in new hands. Droubi said in mid-November that the church had received several bids on the property and that the prospective buyer would likely convert the school to lofts or other residential housing.

As for historic St. Paul's Church -- the twin-spired landmark featured in the 1992 movie Sister Act -- "we'll start on the church in one year, if all goes well," said Sister O'Brien.

The current estimate for seismic upgrades to the church itself is $3.2 million "and climbing," she said. Though no changes will be made to the church's outward appearance, Stanton's architectural firm plans to secure the steeples and walls with steel and reconfigure the basement floor plan.

Sister O'Brien said the total cost of building the new school and retrofitting the church and convent might well exceed $8 million. Still, she's happy with the prog-
ress of her "Save the Church" campaign.

"Our funds are in good shape, though we do have a ways to go. Right now we have about $6 million," she said. "About $2 million of that is from individual gifts. We had three little boys who emptied their piggy banks and sent what they had. A teenager sent $50 she had earned babysitting. People from the community -- even people who aren't involved with the church -- really want to do this.

"This has been a blessing, blessing, blessing," she continued.

Then she leaned back in her chair and smiled mischievously. "It's a real 'Miracle on 29th Street.'"