Catholic Sentinel photos by Ed Langlois
Students and parents enter the new Our Lady of the Lake School on the first day of classes.
Catholic Sentinel photos by Ed Langlois
Students and parents enter the new Our Lady of the Lake School on the first day of classes.
LAKE OSWEGO — Emma Grimes has gone to Our Lady of the Lake School for six years. But on the first day of classes this month, she feared getting lost.

That's because Our Lady of the Lake razed its 74-year-old school and built a soaring new 55,000-square-foot building.

"The old school seemed really small," Emma said, craning her neck to see the new edifice made of glass, steel, wood and brick. Parishioners and school families donated the needed $5.8 million.

"It's gorgeous," says Bernie Albers, a 1986 graduate who now has two children attending Our Lady of the Lake. "There is so much more room." Albers marvels at the 12,000-book library.

The school's two-story-tall entryway includes a balcony that looks down from the parish offices. Through the towering glass windows, students can see Our Lady of the Lake Church.  

Donors paid for dozens of new computers and laptops for teachers. The 230-student school now has a music room with top-rate acoustics and a dedicated science lab.

"The kids will have more room to get around," says James Willingham, the delighted math and science teacher, who on day one had students working chemical reactions and demonstrating the physics behind helicopters.  

The construction project, 15 years in the making, was led by Father Joseph McMahon, who retired earlier this year.  

Robert Mizia, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of Portland, attended Our Lady of the Lake's opening day. He interprets the successful project as a sign of all-around enthusiasm.

"People see the church's commitment to Catholic education as an oasis of hope for the future," Mizia says.

While some dioceses in the U.S. have been closing schools, in western Oregon the Catholic school population has remained fairly steady at 13,300 or so. The challenge, Mizia explains, is maintaining a stream of financial aid.

"We believe in the faith community," said parent Carol Albers, having just dropped off her son Bernie for kindergarten.

"Good education and faith tied together is a wonderful thing," added Craig Somers, dad of fifth grader Isabella. Somers and wife Patricia joined the church via their experience with the people of Our Lady of the Lake. He calls the school "a beacon of light and hope for the whole community."

While most parents choose the school primarily because of the faith life, the new building and academic reputation are adding to the draw. It did not hurt that nearby public schools rearranged, sending fifth graders into middle schools, concerning some parents. Enrollment at Our Lady of the Lake is growing.   

Students got shiny new lockers and teachers have a large lounge with workspace. Kindergartners — there are 20 this year — finally have their own bathroom. There are several walled-off study nooks, each of which has a table and three or four chairs.

Students with disabilities have resource rooms to meet with their instructors.

Classrooms have built-in overhead digital projectors and wireless internet.

Generations of students played basketball and volleyball in the school's undersized gym, so small that spectators could not really fit. The new gym is regulation size and can even have two sideways basketball games running simultaneously. Outside, workers installed a small artificial turf soccer field. That will serve as a mud-free play surface for drizzly days.    

The cafeteria also will provide room for parish youth group activities. Just outside the door of that multi-purpose room, the parish designed space for the parish's St. Vincent de Paul food pantry. Education and good works go side-by-side here.  

Each classroom as a closet just for weekend religious education materials. The rooms do double duty as Sunday school venues.  

The building won a silver rating for its environmental design, which includes linoleum floors and low-wattage lights that turn off when no one is in the room. The walls of the lobby are paneled in wood re-used from the old gym.