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A sense of deja vu

First slide

As their summer vacation was winding down, students from Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington heard the magical news that their break would be extended by almost two weeks due to construction delays. That news took me back to another O’Connell building project that was behind schedule; however, that project was running way behind, and the consequences were significant.

When teachers returned Aug. 19 of this year, we were aghast at the sight of the Trinidad Street wing of classrooms totally separated from the rest of the school by about 50 feet. However, the situation wasn’t as dire as it looked. The administration had a plan. The below ground infrastructure was already in place for the fabulous additions of a pedestrian plaza, a new front entrance, and a beautiful atrium-style corridor that will run from the front to the back of the school and will include an elevator. Enhanced Wi-Fi capability installed over the summer connects the sections of the school electronically in the absence of wiring. 

By Labor Day, the steel superstructure was in place, as was a temporary tunnel for pedestrian traffic connecting the two sections. The school was ready to begin accepting the incoming freshman for the class of 2023 on Wednesday of that week. Considering how the planned improvements will enrich the life of O’Connell students and teachers alike, the disruption is but a minor inconvenience.

Not so, with the construction delay of 62 years ago. In the mid-1950s, there was great excitement and pride in the Catholic community of Northern Virginia; their fundraising efforts had been successful, and the diocese (of Richmond at the time) began construction on the first Catholic high school in the Washington area on the Virginia side of the Potomac. However, when the construction project fell a year behind schedule, the school’s founding pastors told the contractor to have at least classrooms ready for incoming freshmen for the fall semester of 1957. The parents had raised the money and their students were coming — ready or not.

I was one of those freshmen. The whole of O’Connell that first year was the Trinidad Street wing. Though we didn’t mind eating packed lunches or being dismissed at 1:15 p.m. each day, with no science labs, gym, any athletic teams, music department or any of the other myriad of activities available to O’Connell students today, it was a pretty bland experience. There was the excitement of witnessing a major construction project up close and seeing our new high school take shape. I also get my sense of deja vu watching tradesmen and artisans today bring to life this first phase of a master building plan that will take the school into its second 60 years. 

The construction of the new school was completed by the fall of 1958. A new class was added that year and each of the following two. The original freshmen became O’Connell’s first graduating class, the class of 1961. I say with pride that the foundation upon which the rich tradition of the school rests today was built during those early years — a tradition that O’Connell rightfully proclaims is a “Tradition that Transforms.”


Dwyer is a religion teacher at Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019