Lawrence Catholic Academy breaks ground on new $30M campus

LAWRENCE -- On the website for Lawrence Catholic Academy, the word "gym" is written in quotation marks.

The so-called "gym" is a concrete room, 40 by 35 feet in area, that is expected to serve LCA's 475 students from kindergarten up to eighth grade. Group sports do not take place there.

"To call it a gym, I think when you see it, you'll react by laughing," said LCA President Father Paul O'Brien in a Feb. 28 interview.

The gym, which Father O'Brien called "a tiny box," is far from the only structural issue affecting the school. The LCA website describes the three buildings on campus, which were built between 1906 and 1926, as "outdated and failing." An entire floor in one of the buildings is unsafe to enter. There isn't enough classroom space, especially for early childhood education. There's no room for science activities, nor is there a place where the entire student body can gather. The buildings' heating, electricity, and plumbing are starting to give out. The cafeteria, kitchen, and gym are underground and prone to flooding. Much of the school is inaccessible to students with disabilities.

"I don't think most of us are nearly as critical of our homes when we're living in them," Father O'Brien said. "We accept the limitations and focus on what's good."

Lawrence is one of the youngest, fastest-growing, and lowest-income communities in Massachusetts. Eighty-two percent of LCA students receive financial aid to attend school.

"I don't think our students spend a lot of time looking at the walls or thinking about what they don't have," Father O'Brien said. "They focus on what they do have."

In 2016, Father O'Brien launched a fundraising campaign to build a new school that would replace the aging LCA campus. It would be the first new urban Catholic school in the Archdiocese of Boston in over 50 years. As of March 2024, LCA has received $28 million of the $30 million required to build the new school. Thirteen individuals and groups each gave donations of over $1 million. The Yawkey Foundation gave $3 million. Bob Walter, founder of an Ohio-based healthcare products company, gave $1 million -- and a Nordstrom winter coat to every student.

"There are so many good people in Massachusetts and beyond who care deeply about Catholic education, inner-city education, racial justice, social justice," Father O'Brien told The Pilot, "and many of them have proven track records of generosity."

On March 4, LCA held a groundbreaking ceremony for the new school, attended by donors, students, school administrators, a host of local officials, and Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley. The cardinal gave remarks in English and Spanish and led attendees in praying the Our Father and Hail Mary prior to the groundbreaking.

"This is a miracle," he said. "We are people of faith, and we believe in miracles."

The new Lawrence Catholic Academy will be over 42,000 square feet in area and contain two modern classrooms for each grade level. The preschool will have seven classrooms serving a total of 150 students, more than twice the current number.

In total, the new school will be able to accommodate 590 students. There will be spaces for art, music, social skills, and health classes. The new school will be ADA-compliant and completely above-ground. Construction is planned to begin in the spring and end in summer 2025. The current campus will then be torn down to build a 6,000-square-foot recreation center with a full gymnasium and auditorium. The rec center will be able to house basketball, volleyball, and floor hockey games, and a stage for theatrical performances. Construction is expected to end in May 2026.

"For 2,000 years, our faith community has been involved in education because Jesus gave us a mission," Cardinal O'Malley said in his remarks at the groundbreaking ceremony. "And the mission he gave us was to establish a civilization of love, and that's what Catholic schools are about. Helping people to know how to serve, to feel that mission that the Lord has given us, to make this a better world, to learn how to live our lives for love of others."

Cardinal O'Malley was one of many speakers who thanked Father O'Brien for his fundraising efforts.

"We are so proud of his ministry here, what he has done for the city," the cardinal said. "He has been a shining light, and I know that he does this out of his faith, his priestly vocation."

Father O'Brien told The Pilot that when it came to fundraising, there was no need for salesmanship. All he had to do was take donors to the school, and when they saw it for themselves, they were convinced to give.

"The amount of time that it takes between a person visiting Lawrence Catholic Academy and a person giving generously is often an hour or days," he said.

Father O'Brien told The Pilot that when donors visit the school, their most common reaction is that "these students and faculty seem happy" despite the aging facilities they are in. One donor was an investor who told Father O'Brien that when he plans to invest in a company, he pays attention first and foremost to whether the employees are happy. The people at LCA were happy, the investor explained, so he was happy to donate.

"When you walk into LCA, you pretty much immediately experience that this is a safe, love-centered, God-centered reality," Father O'Brien told The Pilot, "and these children are developing beautifully in the midst of all the challenges in our community."

He has noticed that many of the most generous donors had working-class upbringings, and now that they have found success in their own lives, they "very much want to share what they believe God has given them with the next generation of young people."

"What I hope I've learned through many years is there are more good people who care about doing good in this world than anyone other than God can count," he said.

At the groundbreaking ceremony, Father O'Brien said that the new school would not have been possible without his "partner in crime" Peter Lynch, former manager of the Fidelity Investments Magellan Fund and a legendary philanthropist for Catholic education in Boston. Lynch invited some of his friends to visit Lawrence Catholic Academy, and after that, the donations came flooding in.

"Every single person I've brought here," Lynch said in his remarks, "has either written a small check, a medium check, or a large check. This story is so easy. It's so great. You're helping children overcome obstacles."

Lynch said that of all the urban Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Boston, LCA is "the finest by far" despite its "very bad facility."

"This is the best school I've ever seen," he said. "It's going to be so great."

Lawrence Mayor Brian DePena and Lawrence Building Commissioner Peter Blanchette presented Father O'Brien with the permit to begin construction of the new school. Father O'Brien said that city officials have "done somersaults to help us, first and foremost our mayor."

After the groundbreaking, there was a reception in the "gym," and donors had the opportunity to take a student-led tour of the school.

Father O'Brien told The Pilot that LCA has succeeded because it is "Christ-centered" and creates "an atmosphere of love and respect and discipline and achievement."

"We are a thoroughly, genuinely Catholic school," he said.