For a century, Saint Gertrude High School (SGHS), the all-girls Catholic preparatory school, stood in the heart of Richmond’s Museum District. The sight of its students was as common as the very sidewalks they traversed. In 2020, the school relocated to Goochland County, where its brother school, the all-boys Benedictine College Preparatory school, had moved in 2013.
In Goochland, the girls temporarily shared the same academic building as the boys, but they needed a place to call their own. Groundbreaking was in the spring of 2020 with the goal of completing a new academic campus in just three years. Despite the ensuing global pandemic, staff shortages, supply chain issues, soaring inflation, and other setbacks, SGHS still managed to meet its goal.
Years of planning, dozens of meetings, thousands of construction hours, and tens of millions of dollars raised culminated in a ribbon-cutting ceremony on August 18. During the event, Bishop Barry C. Knestout blessed the new edifice in front of hundreds of benefactors, a monolith peacefully perched on a bluff overlooking the James River. A few days later, Saint Gertrude students walked through the doors of their very own school, free to explore the sprawling 51,000-square-foot building.
Jesse Grapes, president of the Benedictine Schools of Richmond (BSOR), and others, spent countless hours fundraising on behalf of the school. And while it’s not quite finished (the chapel, art studios, dance studio, and statuary are forthcoming), the students were able to start the new academic year in their new space.
“The moment is sweet and very fulfilling,” said Grapes. “We wanted to do something incredible for these girls, for Catholic education, and to honor the Benedictine Sisters’ 100-year impact on the Richmond community. It feels right.”
Grapes added that the students were “ecstatic, over-awed, and grateful” to be in their new school. “Their joy and appreciation are palpable,” he said. “That’s what makes it all worthwhile.”
Amy Pickral, head of school for SGHS, shared a story of how shortly before the ribbon-cutting, she saw three large rainbows in a span of ten minutes and took it as a sign. “I just knew God was telling us the same thing he told Noah, that he will protect us in any storm ahead,” she said to the donors at the ceremony.
“And how did he protect us?” she continued. “With you all, the donation community. Your time, treasure, dedication, and prayers have truly sustained us through the duration of this project.”
Architecture of the past and future
While the structure itself is brand new, it carries the weight of a hundred years of history at every turn. From the outside, the new building stayed true to the old, with similar Spanish Revival architecture. There are grand arches, a long terrace that stretches the length of the school, and the three-floor building is topped with a red tile roof.
Bishop Knestout commented on one of the most prominent external features of the new school: its tower. Adorned with a watchful cross, the tower reaches 122 feet up in the sky, visible to travelers on the busy VA-288 highway below.
“The tower is a beacon of faith, and a beacon of truth and of virtue to all those who might see it as they drive by,” said the bishop.
Inside the school, the Rotunda connects the Great Hall, dining hall, main staircase and chapel. Once complete, the new chapel will echo the old. Stained glass and rose windows similar to those found in the original chapel will be included, as well as the original Stations of the Cross and altar from 1922.
The Great Hall features striking 30-foot-tall windows which take advantage of the idyllic location’s natural light. A fireplace, sofas, tables and chairs provide a large yet intimate gathering space for students. Other spaces to study, gather and reflect abound both inside and out, and state-of-the-art technology is utilized in classrooms and laboratories.
Richmond-based architectural firm Glavé & Holmes was the lead designer and architect for the building, with support from Bartzen & Ball Architects. The construction firm Taylor & Parrish built the school. The Benedictine Sisters of Virginia were included in the design process, as were teachers, BSOR staff, alumni and the students themselves. What resulted from this team effort was a unique and expansive building that honors the landscape it’s built upon and provides a nurturing educational environment for its students. The school and its architects were recently awarded the Outstanding Project – New Construction Award from “Learning By Design,” a national architecture periodical.
Pray and work
Sister Andrea Westkamp, who serves as the administrator for the Benedictine Sisters of Virginia and played a vital role in this endeavor, said, “We are pleased and happy to see Saint Gertrude flourish and expand. The dedication today is a very joyous event as it provides our students with a wonderful environment for learning.”
“Love of learning is at the heart of Benedictine spirituality,” she added. “Benedictines always try to learn more, to dive deeper, into what it means to live the Gospel and Benedictine values.”
While the school’s roots are firmly planted in the past, its tower reaches towards the possibilities of what’s to come, and the students’ futures are as bright as the beacon beaming from above.
The milestone is “important in forming a future generation of Catholics and Christians, those who will not only live the faith but also express it and spread the faith to those they encounter,” said Bishop Knestout. “The school provides that context, that space, where that can all take place in forming this next generation of leaders in our world.”
Editor’s note: Read our story from the Jan 23, 3023 issue about the new St. Gertrude High School.