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Grand opening for grand project

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INAUGURATION: Hannah Rose and Kevin McNeely opened the art studio on Jan. 18 that is part of the outdoor project that transformed St. Rita School, along with Principal Gina Olsen. (Credit: David Maung)

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SAN DIEGO — “Today, in many ways, is about dreams.”

That is how Cardinal Robert W. McElroy began his homily during a special Mass on Jan. 18 to give thanks for the renovation of the outdoor space at St. Rita Catholic School. The $7.5-million project, called “Art, Play, Pray,” transformed the campus.

The school’s students attended the Mass, along with contributors, members of the church and schools communities, and current and former staff members.

The cardinal asked the students what they dreamed of doing when they grew up. Some shared their dreams out loud: “Fashion designer.” “Firefighter.” “Teacher.” “Police officer.”

“The things you talk about wanting to be are focused so much on helping other people,” the cardinal told the students. “We are here today because a number of people had a dream to help the school, to help you and to help build up the community that’s here.”

After the Mass, the participants walked to the renovated space that formerly was the sloping concrete parking lot of the church. Today, that area is level and has a turf field, an outdoor amphitheater, a basketball court, two new playground structures, a prayer grotto and an art studio.

The cardinal blessed the grotto and then everyone settled on the turf field in front of a makeshift stage to listen to the people who had helped to bring the project to life.

Father Silverio Espenilla, the pastor of St. Rita Parish, shared the project’s history, starting from the groundbreaking in December of 2021. He thanked the individuals who had been instrumental in raising funds and persistently working through the challenges as they arose, among them Father Anthony Saroki, attorney James Mittermiller, who volunteers at the school, and Steve Laaperi, a former principal there.

He thanked the principal funders, the Manitou Fund through the Kevin and Rosemary McNeely family, which contributed $6.5 million. The couple attended the grand opening, along with their daughter, Hannah Rose.

“Mr. and Mrs. McNeely, thank you for not giving up on this project,” Father Espenilla said.

“Thank you for your extraordinary interest and passion in helping our school community.”

He thanked other funders, including the Shea Homes Foundation, and many individual donors. And he praised the vision and tireless advocacy of the school’s principal, Gina Olsen.

“For generations to come, all boys and girls passing through St. Rita School are going to benefit from this space,” he said. “They will be able to play safely, have a conducive place to develop their art talent and have a beautiful grotto to pray.”

After the presentation, the participants moved to the front of the art studio for a ribbon-cutting.

“This is a day of celebration, of opening a safe space for the children, so they can have the privilege of tapping into their creative side,” said Rosemary McNeely, a few minutes later, of the studio that bears her name. “They will be able to learn skills that they can take into high school and into college.”

In her remarks, Olsen, the school’s principal, noted that the outdoor project would not only benefit the students but the greater community around the church and school.

“St. Rita’s proudly shines as a beacon of light and hope in an area that sometimes sees much pain and darkness. Today, St. Rita’s School, built in 1951,  receives the gift of a lifetime.”

Photos by David Maung

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