New London — A groundbreaking ceremony Tuesday officially launched a $7.1 million project to rehab a former Catholic school into 20 units of affordable housing.
St. Mary Star of the Sea School, located at 16 Huntington St., was built in 1892. The K-8 school graduated its last class in 2012 with six students.
Addressing a crowd of about 30 people who sat in folding chairs on the blacktop behind the school, was Lisa Dematteis-Lepore, president and CEO of The Connection, a statewide human services and community development agency based in Middletown specializing in solving problems of homelessness, mental illness and substance abuse.
“We have a tremendous need for affordable housing in Connecticut and this ground-breaking symbolizes The Connection’s commitment to providing high quality, affordable housing for Connecticut residents,” she said.
Dematteis-Lepore thanked a long list of the project’s funders that included the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority, Connecticut Department of Housing, National Development Corporation Equity Fund, Capital for Change, and the Corporation for Supportive Housing.
When asked who among the audience attended the school, about 10 hands went up.
Among them was New London resident Russell DeMarco, age 91, who spoke about his memories after the ceremony. He said he was “born and raised” in the city and graduated from St. Mary school in 1941.
“We had the Sisters of Mercy, they were very demanding, in many respects,” he said, smiling. “They knew how to discipline you.”
Standing on the blacktop at the back of the three-story, brick school, DeMarco said he remembered coming outside for recess.
“There used to be a little water fountain over there,” he said. “And we’d run around and do all the fun things kids do.”
He said he was in favor of transforming the school into housing. “It’s wonderful. I think we need it,” he said.
Standing nearby was Father Mark O’Donnell, pastor of St. Mary Star of the Sea church, built in 1876, as well as the churches of St. Joseph, St. Paul and Our Lady of Grace on Fishers Island. Serving in his position for about three and a half years, he said he had participated in the process of transforming the former school to affordable housing.
“The community for the most part always regrets the closing of a Catholic School but at the same time they know it’s being repurposed for, which is really part of the mission of our church to serve the poor and the under-priveleged,” he said.
O’Donnell added that the school has some original details that will be preserved .
“It has tin ceilings that will be removed during construction, cleaned and restored and then reinstalled. They’re also going to retain some of the blackboards in the classrooms for their historical value and the history,” he said.
Admiring the school building was Anne Scheibner, who lives nearby at St. Francis House, who said her daughter, Sarah Jarrett, attended the school from about 1999 to 2002 for fourth and fifth grades.
“We loved having it as a neighborhood school. It was a very international community of students, a lot of Spanish-speaking students, so we were sorry to lose it as an educational resource.”
Scheibner, who served as the assistant basketball coach, said many parents volunteered to teach subjects such as music and art.
“If it can’t be a neighborhood school, I’m delighted to have it be used for people whose housing needs are not being met,” she said.
Also attending the ceremony was Beth Hogan, director of government and community partnership at The Connection, who said the hard construction costs were $5.3 million, considered high because of needed abatement of lead and asbestos.
Upon completion, the school will comprise 20 apartment units of both studio and one-bedroom configurations. Eight of the units will be handicapped-accessible. The building will also feature community spaces for residents and case management services.
According to Allison DeBlasio, director of communications for The Connection, the project incorporates several types of funding, including CHAMP funds, Flex funds, bond funding, tax credits for affordable housing and federal tax credits for historic preservation and rehabilitation. Equity funding was also raised by the National Development Corporation Equity Fund, which raises funding by selling tax credits to investors.
New London Mayor Mike Passero, who spoke during the ceremony, called the project “a great moment for the city.”
“What this represents to us is not only saving a structure that many, many people in the city have memories of coming to… We have nearly 1,000 units of housing in the planning stages and at least 20 percent of that is going to be affordable housing. It’s very, very important going forward that we provide the housing for all the socioeconomic levels that make up this great city,” he said.
The project is expected to be completed by the first half of 2020.