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Bishop O'Connell High School builds for the future

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After six decades of educating students in Northern Virginia, Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington is ready for some major renovations. The area’s first Catholic high school still has most of its original structures and floor plan from its early days. The school was built with two wings: girls were educated by the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in one wing, while the boys were taught by the Christian Brothers in the other. 

When O’Connell brought the two groups together, the floor plan was never adjusted. The school has done its best to make do with the meandering layout with the hope that eventually they would create a more unified floor plan. 

“I think the chapel will be a very bold and profound statement on the Catholic identity of our community” Father Gregory S. Thompson


Over the past decade, O’Connell leadership watched as public schools renovated to meet the needs of contemporary education and realized the time had come to upgrade their facilities. 


With their 60th anniversary on the horizon, the school began developing a master facility plan and hired Maginniss + del Ninno Architects in the spring of 2013. 


“O’Connell is in the leadership phase of the capital campaign,” said Joseph E. Vorbach, head of school. “It’s the first step in an eight-phase master plan to be ready for its next 60 years of service.”


The first phase involves the demolition of the old IHM convent and residence to make room for a new chapel and academic building. The sisters moved into their new convent near campus Dec. 15.


“The chapel was originally planned by the architects to be more in the front of the school and would not have been addressed until the fourth phase,” said Vorbach. “At the board level we were talking about all the changes and sisters moving, (so he) asked for the chapel to be moved forward without disrupting the project.”


The architects worked to create a chapel in keeping with the Irish heritage of Bishop Denis J. O’Connell, the seventh bishop of Richmond. The stone walls, high peaked ceilings and windows have a distinct Irish aesthetic. The 160-seat chapel will face Trinidad Street and flow into the new academic building, similar to a key in a lock.


“I think the chapel will be a very bold and profound statement on the Catholic identity of our community,” said Father Gregory S. Thompson, chaplain. “We are doing a lot with improving our Catholic identity within the school with our curriculum and how we are recruiting teachers. The building project is a reflection of what we have been doing within the walls of the school. It is an outward sign of our Catholic identity.”


In addition to the chapel, the school is adding more innovative classroom space to facilitate contemporary learning. Desks will be mobile enough to rearrange, students will be able to switch from multiple electronic devices with ease and there will be more wall space for students to work on.


Demolition will begin this summer and construction of the new main hall will begin in the summer of 2019. The new building and the chapel should be open by August 2020.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018