Project at St. Rita’s a renaissance for school


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SAN DIEGO — Big things are happening at St. Rita’s School and Parish in Southeast San Diego.

For more than 70 years, St. Rita’s students have used the sloping asphalt church parking lot as their playground. Not any longer, however.

The students will now have a new, level, sustainable turf field; a basketball court; play structures; and a prayer grotto. These are part of a $7-million project, called “Art, Play, Pray,” that is under construction.

“It’s amazing to think that less than 10 years ago, St. Rita’s was slated for closure,” said Gina Olsen, the principal. “This project represents the renaissance of Catholic education in Southeast San Diego.”

The superintendent of the diocese’s Office for Schools, Leticia Oseguera, said the long-awaited project will transform the entire school community.

“Not only will the students have a safe space to play and enjoy their recess and lunch, but they will also have an art studio where students can be creative and let their imagination fly. The sense of pride and excitement that it’s already bringing to the community is quite a sight to see,” said Oseguera.

St. Rita’s School has 228 students in transitional kindergarten through eighth grade. Construction on the project began last November and is to be completed this summer.

The project was initiated by Kevin McNeely, whose family foundation, Manitou Fund, is the primary funder of the project, said Mary Johnson, a member of the St. Rita’s Development Team.

“When Kevin first visited the school, he immediately recognized the need for a safe, sports friendly play area for the school’s students,” she wrote in an email The Southern Cross, describing the project.

His wife, Rosemary, expanded the vision, she added.

As an artist herself, Rosemary wanted art to be emphasized in the St. Rita’s School curriculum more fully, Johnson said. So, in addition to funding art instruction at the school, Rosemary envisioned an art studio in a new, stand-alone building to encourage every student to explore the beauty and creativity of art.

Prayer is the essence of Catholic education and parish life. This project includes a new, peaceful prayer grotto and garden for quiet reflection and meditation. The new grotto will stand where the run down long-vacant convent once stood.

Father Silverio Espenilla, Jr., pastor of St. Rita’s Parish, said the community was “grateful and happy” the project included a grotto.

“This will greatly strengthen the school’s purpose of providing our students with the experience of Our Blessed Mother, Mary,” he said. “Our parishioners will also greatly benefit from the grotto by having a sacred outdoor space for prayer and contemplation.”

The final phase of the project will be replacing the chain-link fence along Imperial Avenue with a beautiful new wall having openings to view the fields and grotto and enhancing security.

A video of the  project may be seen at

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