|St. Bernard Academy, founded by the Sisters of Mercy in 1866, kicks off its 150th anniversary year with a new $4.2 million, 18,000 square foot expansion. The new main entrance to the school, above, is now located on Bernard Street; administrative offices will also move from the 24th Avenue side of the building to the new Bernard Street entrance. The expansion also includes a large multi-purpose room, seven new classrooms, and new area for student support services. Photos by Theresa Laurence|
In St. Bernard Academy’s 150-year history, students have attended classes in a stately downtown mansion, a turn-of-the-century brick convent, and soon, in a new, state-of-the-art building designed just for them.
When SBA students return to school on Aug. 24, they will be attending classes and participating in extracurricular activities in a new $4.2 million, 18,000 square foot addition. “We are thrilled with this new space and are excited about the opportunities the expansion gives us,” Head of School Chuck Sabo said.
St. Bernard Academy, now an independent elementary school, was founded by the Sisters of Mercy in 1866, and is one of the oldest schools in the Diocese of Nashville.
The school’s expansion provides seven new classrooms, a large multi-purpose room, a student support center and updates to space for fine arts, administration and after-care services.
As Sabo led a tour of campus during the first week of August, he proudly showed off the new space, but admitted the final weeks of summer break would be “nail biting” as construction workers and SBA staff members scrambled to have everything ready before the students returned.
Brick masons were still busy with interior and exterior work; landscapers were installing plants and sod on the playground; classroom furniture had to be delivered and arranged; technology wiring and devices had to be set up throughout the building; offices had to be moved and reconfigured.
While the physical footprint of St. Bernard Academy is significantly expanding, the student body, which stands at about 340 students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, is not. “Our parents really appreciate the small class sizes and sense of community,” Sabo said. The expansion, he added, “was done to better accommodate who we’ve got,” not to push enrollment up.
The new classrooms are designed to be flexible enough for group study, independent reading, and interactive learning. The new student support center will feature rooms dedicated to tutoring and more functional spaces for guidance and counseling. Previously, these services were provided in small, repurposed offices.
Another big change is moving the school’s front entrance and the administrative offices from 24th Avenue to Bernard Street. Close to the new front entrance is a large, multi-purpose room that will be used for fine arts performances, school and community-wide assemblies and the celebration of Mass. “This gives us the opportunity to develop our fine arts program,” Sabo said.
|St. Bernard Academy Head of School Chuck Sabo leads a tour of the school’s newly expanded building during the first week of August. Construction workers and SBA staff members were working hard to have everything finished before students return to school on Aug. 24.|
As an independent Catholic school located in the Hillsboro Village neighborhood near Vanderbilt University, St. Bernard has become a top choice for families affiliated with the nearby university. “More than half of our student body has some connection to Vandy,” Sabo said.
St. Bernard draws students from highly educated and professional families, including non-Catholics who also consider much pricier private schools before choosing SBA. Within the elite private school market, Sabo said, St. Bernard offers an excellent value to families. The new campus expansion will allow the school to continue offering that value far into the future. “This ensures our longevity,” Sabo said.
The school’s new bells and whistles – including new smartboards in the classrooms, artificial turf on the playground, and open lockers in the hallway – are exciting for students and parents, but what remains the centerpiece of the school is its Catholic identity. “Parents expect a solid Catholic education, first and foremost,” Sabo said. “That spiritual piece is a big part of who we are.”
That Catholic identity is rooted in the tradition of the Sisters of Mercy. “This is all as a result of their hard work,” Sabo said.
‘A place you don’t forget’
Sisters of Mercy like Sister Nena DeMatteo, RSM, who attended St. Bernard in the 1940s, and who taught at the school from 1970-2004, helped created a legacy of faith and learning at the school. Sister Nena attended St. Bernard Academy High School when it was still located in the old brick convent building, which the Sisters occupied from 1905-1989.
“St. Bernard is very special to me,” Sister Nena said. “It’s a place you don’t forget.”
A star athlete in high school, Sister Nena loved the Sisters of Mercy who taught her, and decided to join the order shortly after graduating from SBA in 1950. “I’ve never regretted one second of it,” she said. After making her vows, studying at Memphis State University, and teaching in Knoxville, Sister Nena returned to St. Bernard.
She lived on an upper floor of the brick convent “with a big crowd of sisters” and taught young children to read in the school, then located on the first floor of the same building. “I knew every nook and cranny of that place,” Sister Nena said. At that time the SBA High School was operating in a relatively new building down the hill (which is home to the present-day St. Bernard Academy elementary school).
St. Bernard’s biggest change came in 1989 when the Sisters of Mercy decided to sell the brick convent building and move out to Pennington Bend. At that time, SBA parents formed a non-profit organization, bought the old high school building and moved the elementary school into the former high school space.
While the Sisters of Mercy no longer had ownership of the school after 1989, several stayed on as administrators and teachers, including Sister Nena, who remained until her retirement in 2004. The 2016-2017 school year will be the first in St. Bernard’s history that no Sisters of Mercy are teaching there. But, Sister Nena said, “they still have the Mercy spirit. I don’t think that will ever go away.”
While Sister Nena has witnessed many changes at St. Bernard over the years, she said what hasn’t changed is the “warmth of the students and the smiles on your faces” when she visits the school. “When I walk in I always feel welcome. That’s the way a school should be.”
St. Bernard Academy is kicking off the new school year by moving into a greatly expanded campus; once they get settled they will move right into a full slate of events to mark the school’s 150th anniversary.
The year kicks off with a special Book Collection in September. Other events to celebrate the founding of the school and the Sisters of Mercy presence in Nashville include:
Mercy Day Weekend Sept. 23-25
More information about St. Bernard Academy’s 150th anniversary celebration is available at www.stbernardacademy.org.