EASTON — Where fertile farmland once yielded crops in the heart of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, a contemporary new Catholic high school building and athletic fields will soon foster a state-of-the-art learning environment for students in Talbot and surrounding counties.
Saints Peter and Paul High School administrators and teachers will welcome students to the new campus on Sept. 7.
“It’s really a dream come true,” said Father James Nash, who has served as pastor of Ss. Peter and Paul Parish for seven years.
About 18 months ago, the parish launched a $21-million, 5-year capital campaign to finance its new college preparatory high school and Family Life Center adjacent to the church. Father Nash said both facilities will be paid for in the next three years.
While pandemic slowdowns and back orders have challenged the school’s completion in time for the start of the fall 2021 semester, all systems are go for about 160 students to enter the front doors and head to about 20 classrooms. Despite the increased space, classes and student-to-teacher ratio will remain small.
“This started as a small Catholic high school, it has existed as a small Catholic high school, and it will continue to exist as a small Catholic high school,” said James Nemeth, who has served as principal for 21 years.
The 65,000 square foot building has features the previous 16,000 square foot temporary structure couldn’t accommodate: an auditorium that seats more than 300, oversized fine arts classrooms, a 40-seat chapel, a learning center for students with learning differences, a cafeteria, and much larger high-ceiling, multipurpose class and meeting rooms.
All of the spaces are designed and furnished to provide for flexible learning configurations and other purposes. “Every one of these rooms needs to be available for a variety of different things,” Nemeth said.
The building, both inside and out, has a sleek, contemporary industrial style and neutral, gray-toned color scheme. Polished concrete floors, open ceilings in most rooms and large windows suggest a collegiate academic environment.
Outside will be a central courtyard garden “that will take the better part of a year to design” with student and alumni input, Nemeth said. The athletic complex is comprised of tennis courts, two full playing fields, two practice fields, and a lighted stadium. Hundreds of trees and shrubs have been planted.
“I think from an athletic standpoint, we’re going to be able to provide not only for our students, but also (serve) as a partner within the community,” he said.
The 100-acre campus, situated south of Easton between busy U.S. Route 50 and South Washington Street, is also home to Ss. Peter and Paul Church, a Family Life Center, and a nearly completed columbarium and cemetery.
“As the only Catholic high school on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, we have a missional imperative to exist,” Nemeth said. “This community, this parish, these wonderful parishioners, the pastors, the bishops, the lay people, the (school) board have all committed to that.”
“You need a strong, vibrant, Catholic secondary presence on the Eastern Shore of Maryland,” he added.
Founded in 1955, Ss. Peter and Paul School students attended classes at the original brick-and-mortar building on High Street. It is still home to the elementary and middle schools.
In 1994, high school students moved into what was supposed to have been temporary administrative offices and classrooms on Choptank Avenue behind the brick-and-mortar main building.
Under the leadership of Father Paul Jennings, two stick-built buildings attached by a portable structure to form a U-shape were installed.
It was an intimate but cramped setting. Nevertheless, from its three hallways emerged Ivy League collegians and top sports champions, including the female winner of the Wendy’s High School Heisman national award and an Olympic athlete.
In 2009, then-pastor Father Robert Coine warned that budget shortfalls and declining enrollment threatened the high school’s viability. But parishioners, parents, alumni, and community members lobbied for its survival, and enrollment increased.
“Our total school population is about 55% Catholic and 45% non-Catholic. So there are many people out there who see that we have a really good educational program and they want to be part of that,” Father Nash said. “It was really important for us to do everything in our power to keep this school not just open but vibrant, and offer our kids a really good environment in which to learn. The other school was a fine environment, it really was. But this is going to be really state-of-the-art.”
Father Nash credits school board chair Peggy Wilson as the spearhead behind the project. As an experienced construction project manager, she and facilities manager and owner representative Brent Outten took on day-to-day oversight of the project, he said.
Workers are currently dismantling and removing the old building.
“Parts of it burned down twice, but it really did fulfill its role in providing a really neat Ss. Peter and Paul high school community, but it’s time. It’s served its time well,” Nemeth said.
Nemeth said that adjusting from a “a very small, physical environment to a much larger physical environment” provides “an opportunity because we were so limited at the previous school. And so now you have space, you have space to breathe, you have space to pursue certain activities.”
“The mere fact that we could have an auditorium and our performing arts (in the building) is very, very exciting, because I think that builds an essential component of our school,” Nemeth said. “We’re good academically; we have wonderful sports. But the fact that we can now move forward with having a more vibrant performing arts program at Ss. Peter and Paul, is fulfilling the mission of the school, and I like that.”
For Nemeth, the spiritual aspect of Ss. Peter and Paul High School is paramount. “That’s why the chapel and campus ministry office will be the first rooms one sees when entering the main doors because the first thing you see when you enter should be focused on God,” he said.
Directly across from the school’s main entrance is a large clock tower and beyond that, the parish’s flagship church.
“The faith is the central point of why we exist as a school,” Nemeth said. “We now can engage in Mass more frequently. We’re engaged with the parishioners more; we’re physically more present with them. And I think that’s a good thing.”