by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — The morning of May 2 dawned with the skies over the city here filled with thunder and rain.
But Donnelly College officials had faith that the groundbreaking for their new academic building wouldn’t be a washout.
Under leaden skies, president Msgr. Stuart W. Swetland praised the college foundress Sister Jerome Keeler, OSB.
“Sister Jerome was a pioneer in the world of higher education,” he said. “Not just a Benedictine Sister, but a world-renowned scholar of French literature who saw the need for accessible, high-quality Catholic education in the heart of the city.
“Without Sister Jerome’s commitment to those who might not otherwise be served, Donnelly would not be entering its 70th year of service to the church, to Kansas City, Kansas, and the whole region, and — most importantly — to our wonderful student population.”
“And you noticed,” added Msgr. Swetland, pausing to glance up at the sun breaking through the clouds, “when I mentioned Sister Jerome, the sun came out.”
The new 72,000-square-foot building will be constructed on the spot now occupied by a parking lot bordered on the east by 18th St. and Tauromee Ave. on the south. Construction of the $19.5 million, three-story building is expected to begin this May and be completed by July 2020.
The architect for this building is Burns & McDonnell, and the general contractor is Excel Constructors.
Other project partners are J.E. Dunn Construction, TreanorHL, Gould Evans Associates, MC Realty Group and Mark One Electric Company, Inc.
Once the college has moved into the new academic building, the eight-story tower building, a portion of the former Providence Hospital that the college has used as its main facility since it moved to the site in May 1982, will be torn down.
The tower building space will be replaced by a grassy, tree-lined campus quad.
Construction of the academic building is part of a three-phase, $30 million campus transformation plan that began about a decade ago.
The master plan was initiated in 2008, under Donnelly president Steven M. LaNasa. Phase One was the completion of the $2.5 million Community Events Center in 2013. Phase Two was the completion of a $2 million renovation of Marian Hall for classrooms, offices, a computer lab and study space.
The third phase has three sequences.
The first sequence is the construction of a new $2.6 million parking garage immediately behind Bishop Ward High School. The two-level garage will have 150 spaces. Construction began in January and will be completed in June.
The second sequence is the construction of the new academic building, which will also have a 60-seat dedicated chapel — something Donnelly College does not currently have.
The third sequence is the demolition of the tower building and construction of the campus quad on the west side of the new academic building.
Few people have seen as much change at the Donnelly campus as Sister Mary Teresa Morris, OSB, one of the college’s board of directors.
“I taught in the LPN program for a couple of years, and I worked in labor and delivery as evening supervisor, so I’m very familiar with the stairwells,” said Sister Mary Teresa, a registered nurse. “In fact, I was born here.”
She even lived in the mutual convent for the Sisters who taught at Bishop Ward and worked in the hospital, now the site of the new parking structure.
Ever since it was founded in 1949, Donnelly College has made do with mostly hand-me-down buildings.
Its first home was the old Wyandotte Catholic High School, built in 1908, at 12th and Sandusky. Later, the college took over the former episcopal mansion next door, built in 1891.
The college’s first new purpose-built academic building was the two-story George E. Bennett Building, completed in 1963. It connected the old high school with the mansion. All three of these buildings were torn down in July and August of 1998.
Despite renovations, the place Donnelly has called home for nearly 40 years never quite lost that “hospital” vibe. Sister Mary Teresa believes the new academic building — which features spacious, open areas with lots of natural light — will attract students.
“It looks like a college,” she said. “It has more room for students to interact and study together. It has a student resource center — the new name for libraries. The classrooms are larger, and we can use modern teaching methods. It’s a school, rather than a redone hospital.”
The current student enrollment per semester is 400 but, with the new building, that could increase to 800, thanks to the added space and improved amenities.
In his remarks before blessing the new chapel site — marked by a humble, orange traffic cone — Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann said he was proud of the archdiocese’s partnership with the Benedictine Sisters that makes Donnelly College possible. He also thanked the many supporters, benefactors and partners.
“We break ground today and we’re grateful for all those who have helped us be in a position to do this,” said the archbishop. “But we still have room for more partners, and we’d love, when this building is completed, that it would be debt-free, so that all of our resources could be devoted to scholarships to make this school as accessible as possible.”
Earlier, Msgr. Swetland noted that the archdiocese had made a $4 million commitment to Donnelly College — “the biggest single contribution of a diocese to a college in the history of the church in America.”