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Meet me at St. Louis (three-part series)

A three-part Waterloo Chronicle series documenting the past, present and future of the City of Waterloo's first Catholic school.

Part one: Meet me at St. Louis

James Jackson
Waterloo Chronicle
Published Feb. 27, 2013While city council debates what to do with the former St. Louis Catholic school, former students — like the one’s in Edna Ertel’s Grade 4 class from 1947 — remember the school fondly. Photo courtesy Jerry Fischer.

Rev. Terry McGuire remembers walking to school every day during the 1940s. Rain or shine, through snow or hail, he made the roughly 1.5-kilometre walk from his home on Alexandra Avenue to St. Louis Catholic School near uptown Waterloo.

Depending on the route, it may have even been uphill both ways.

“We were never home from school because of rain and we didn’t have snow days like they do today,” laughed McGuire, now retired and living at Resurrection Manor on Westmount Road.

“I guess that’s how you got your exercise.”

For more than 50 years St. Louis was the only Catholic school in the Waterloo, but the future of the building is very much in doubt. The school was closed in 1983 and the city bought it from the separate school board last March for $535,000 with an additional $122,000 budgeted for legal fees and other costs.

St. Louis school had a formative affect on McGuire’s young life. He said it influenced him to become a priest, a profession that allowed him to see the world and live and work in Rome for nearly 20 years.

McGuire would like to see it remain standing, but knows the city has a tough decision to make — spend hundreds of thousands of dollars refurbishing the site or sell it and try to recoup some of the money spent to buy it last year.

“I think there are ways of revitalizing it, to reuse it.”

It’s a decision made all the more difficult by the significance of the building to the city’s history. To fully understand the life of the school you have to go back almost 190 years.

According to the parish history of the St. Louis Catholic Church, the first Catholics arrived in Waterloo in the 1830s and while some came and went, the ones who stayed had to make the 10-km trek on horse and buggy to St. Agatha every week for mass.

The completion of St. Mary’s church in Kitchener in 1856 offered some relief for wary travellers, but Catholics in Waterloo wanted a place to call their own. According to the 1861 census, about nine per cent of the population identified itself as Roman Catholic.

In 1881, the Catholic Mutual Benefit Association was formed and the group lobbied on behalf of Catholic residents to get a church of their own. Their work finally paid off in 1890 when the foundation for St. Louis church was laid.

By January 1891, the church was dedicated and the basement became Waterloo’s first Catholic school as the Sisters of Notre Dame travelled by train from Kitchener each day to run the classes. That first year saw 53 students split into two rooms.

In 1895, a convent was built to house the sisters and growing enrolment meant a third room had to be added in 1897 as the number of students swelled to over 100.

Eventually the basement ran out of space for the children and in 1905 a four-room school was built next to the church. Eight more rooms were added in 1923, along with another four in 1961 when attendance peaked at around 400 students.

For almost 60 years students from Grade 1 to 8 passed through the school’s doors, including McGuire from 1940 to 1948. The father said St. Louis played a crucial role in Waterloo’s early Catholic community since it was the only Catholic school in town until Our Lady of Lourdes was built in 1949.

Following its peak in the 1960s, the school saw a gradual decline over the next decade, which forced school administrators to make some tough decisions about the future of the school. Enrolment had fallen from 189 students in 1974 to just 86 in 1983. Seven of the 13 classrooms remained empty in the school’s final year.

An intense debate raged over what to do with the school. At a meeting with school trustees in March 1982, Larry Freiburger spoke for the 20 or so parents at the meeting, saying St. Louis represented the very fabric of the Mary Allen neighbourhood.

“You are not dealing with bricks and glass or steel and wood, you are dealing with people, people with ties to the school and families deeply rooted in parish life.”

He asked for school boundaries to be rearranged and for greater emphasis to be put on attracting more Catholic students to the area.

School trustee Chuck Yates, though, called the closure, “a sign of the times.”

After closing in 1983, the three-storey, 24,000-square-foot building was used as an adult education centre and for other educational programming until 2005. It’s been vacant ever since and has begun to deteriorate.

During a council meeting this past November, Coun. Mark Whaley recounted a visit he made to the school during a rainstorm and remarked it was raining inside the structure as much as it was outside.

Whaley and other councillors raised concerns about the costs of rehabilitating the site, known to have dangerous environmental problems such as mould and asbestos on the ground floor.

Following a closed-door meeting on Feb. 4, options of what to do with the site were discussed, including selling it. A second meeting was held Feb. 25 and a report is expected next month.

“The structure itself is part of the community,” said Uptown Ward Coun. Melissa Durrell, who said Mary Allen residents would like to see the structure preserved — or at least the outer façade.

“They like the bones of it.”

McGuire feels it is in the school’s best interest to stay in city hands, but he knows the city always faces financial pressures.

“I guess I’m in favour of leaving it in the hands of the people who have been elected, but there is a limit to the amount of money you can put into reusing what was once a school.”


Part two: School's out foreverThe main hallway of the former St. Louis Catholic school. James Jackson photo.

James Jackson
Waterloo Chronicle
Published March 6, 2013

Cameron Rapp unlocks the side entrance of the building and steps inside. The high-pitched beeping of the alarm system pierces the silence and the city’s general manager of development services punches in a code to deactivate it.

“The basement is off limits because of asbestos around the pipes, but that was the only word of caution I was given,” he said.

How comforting.

The air is musty and cool, like an old cellar that hasn’t been opened in years, and sunshine filters through the windows and down the main hallway, providing just enough light to see to the end of the empty corridor. The brown tile underfoot has begun to peel and flake.

Some of the classroom doors are half closed while others are swung wide open, and many of the chalkboards still have lesson plans and homework assignments written in white chalk.

It’s as if the last person to leave the building did so in such a hurry they didn’t have time to wipe the boards or latch the door behind them.

The carpets are stained and wrinkled, while the red school bells, empty coat hooks and knee-height water fountains offer hints of the building’s more vibrant past. Most of the original classrooms on the top floor have been subdivided into offices or storage areas using panels of drywall .

Welcome to the former St. Louis Catholic School, 75 Allen St. E. in Waterloo.

Closed by the Waterloo Catholic District School Board in 1983 due to falling student enrolment, the city’s first Catholic school was used as an adult education centre until 2005 when, 100 years after it first opened, the doors were closed for good.

The city bought the building last March for $535,000 but only so it could own the rest of the park space across Willow Street, currently occupied by a gravel parking lot and a yellow classroom portable.

The city already owned the northeast portion of Mary Allen Park and had been trying to complete the one-acre parcel for about 15 years, but the school board wouldn’t sell unless the building was included.

Depending on who you ask, half a million dollars might seem like a fair price to pay for a piece of land that size so close to the uptown core, but the city now has an aging structure in need of major repairs on its hands and the neighbourhood’s nostalgia for the building alone won’t fix the cracks.

When the school board closed St. Louis more than two decades ago, the school needed an estimated $52,000 worth of maintenance and upgrades — a sum that has increased considerably over time.

“I’m not a structural engineer or anything, but if you wanted to reuse this it would take, in my mind, substantial funds,” said Rapp, without offering a dollar amount.

The city commissioned a third-party report on the condition of the structure last year, and while that report has yet to be made public, Rick Reichard of SRM Architects Inc. — part of the consulting team assigned the task of coming up with potential uses for the school — told council last November the school was still in decent shape.

“The structure is sound, the roof is sound, (and the) brickwork is sound,” he said.

During that meeting last fall, though, councillors expressed concern over the cost of keeping the building and repurposing it. After several public meetings, the consulting group tabled three possible options: Turn the building into apartments or condos, use it to host art studio space or reduce the building to ruins and integrate the property into a community park.

Rapp said the land is currently zoned General Residential 2 and the official plan still has the land set for low-density residential, which does not permit apartments or townhouses. If a developer were to buy the property they would have to go through a zoning bylaw amendment to turn it into condos or to tear it down and build apartments or townhouses.

Replacing the school with single-detached homes would not require an amendment.

Waterloo has a track record of converting older schools for other purposes, such as the former Alexandra school in the heart of uptown. The school, opened in 1909, was converted into 22 condominium suites by the JG Group of Companies in 2000.

Another example is the Brighton school, built in 1960 and now used as a daycare centre. A portion of the school’s green space was retained for outdoor use, while the rest was converted to townhouses.

With the fate of the St. Louis school now in private discussion among councillors, public officials are reluctant to offer an opinion of what should be done with it.

“It’s now under discussion so I’m going to declare no comment,” said Coun. Mark Whaley, who toured the inside of the school about a year ago.

Coun. Scott Witmer’s concerns are focused on the cost of keeping the school versus selling and redeveloping it. He said it had character and was in a prime location, but he wants a clearer idea of just what kind of shape the former school is actually in before he makes his decision.

“It’s a beautiful building,” said Witmer, who was last inside the school about 10 years ago.

Uptown Ward Coun. Melissa Durrell said the city made the right decision buying the school along with the park, despite the uncertainty of what to do with it now.

She said tearing it down and building apartments in its place wouldn’t suit the character of the Mary Allen neighbourhood.

“Do we walk away now because of the building?” she asked.

“I think we made the right decision — green space is crucial to the core.”


Part three: A lesson in preservationOne of the region’s foremost developers says Waterloo should save the former St. Louis Catholic school. James Jackson photo.

James Jackson
Waterloo Chronicle
Published March 13, 2013

If and when the city of Waterloo requests proposals to redevelop the former St. Louis Catholic school site near the uptown core, at least one of those proposals will likely involve tearing it down.

The developer might point to the age and condition of the school and claim the restoration of the city’s first Catholic school, built in 1905, isn’t worth the investment. It would be more cost effective to knock the 24,000 square-foot building down and start anew.

Should such a proposal cross the desk of councillors and city staff, Shawky Fahel has a few words of advice.

“I can prove them wrong,” said the Waterloo-based entrepreneur and chief executive officer of the JG Group of Companies. “That option should not be entertained as an option at all. That building can be put to good use.”

Closed by the Waterloo Catholic District School Board in 1983 due to falling enrolment, the school was used as an adult education centre until 2005 when the board finally closed it for good.

Fahel has made at least two offers to buy the building from the school board — in 2005 and again in 2009 — but both deals fell through. Last March the board sold the school and a portion of the Mary Allen Park across Willow Street to the city.

Now, council is struggling with what to do with the building it paid a little more than half a million dollars for.

Fahel has experience renovating old schools for modern use. When the former Alexandra public school was put up or sale in the late 1990s, Fahel said his proposal was the only one that didn’t involve tearing the building to the ground.

By the year 2000 he had transformed the school, built in 1909, into 22 condominium suites right in the heart of uptown Waterloo.

“I believe in retrofitting, in preservation,” Fahel said. “They’re part of our history, our culture and our heritage.”

His proposal for St. Louis in 2005 was very similar to Alexandra, only he wanted to turn the former Catholic school into 22 retirement apartments with universal access.

Fahel, who toured the St. Louis school just last year, said the building did present some challenges for redevelopment — mould and asbestos, just to name a few — but overall the structure is still in good shape, though he wishes the school board had not left it sitting unattended for seven years. “It’s been neglected, and these old buildings need lots of love and care,” he said.

While the school has not been designated a historical site, the North Waterloo Branch of the Architecture Conservancy of Ontario is preparing a request for city council to reverse that decision.

The group says the building meets all three categories of the Ontario Heritage Act, including physical or design value in its construction, historical value to the city, and contextual value within the community.

“Heritage designation is an important step because it will encourage re-use of the building,” said the group’s comments, forwarded to the Chronicle by Kae Elgie, president of the North Waterloo Branch of the ACO.

At the opposite end of the development spectrum, Eleanor Grant also wants the building to be preserved. Not as high-end condominiums or apartments, but as an affordable housing complex modeled after the successful Supportive Housing of Waterloo program.

“Since the site is already owned by the city this would be a kick starter, if the site could be made available,” said Grant.

SHOW has worked to get people off the streets of Waterloo since it opened its doors in June of 2010 and moved 30 people into a five-storey apartment at 362 Erb St. W. It offers around-the-clock support and tries to match them up with services to help address some of the issues that contributed to their homelessness.

Grant has seen the need for more affordable housing first-hand. The landlord has had tenants in the past who have relied on social assistance to get by, and she is a member of the Kitchener-Waterloo Alliance Against Poverty.

“I think there is a lack of knowledge of the need (for supportive housing),” she said. “A lot of people are under-housed or precariously housed, so it isn’t that evident.”

At a ribbon-cutting ceremony for three new affordable housing developments this past January, Regional Chair Ken Seiling acknowledged the growing need for the service in the region, noting there are about 1,500 applications for supportive housing alone.

Mayor Brenda Halloran said city council was working with the community to find the right fit for St. Louis school.

Councillors would like to get the issue settled sooner rather than later, she said, but the mayor wouldn’t comment on any redevelopment options.

“It’s an important piece of property,” said Halloran, whose Girl Guide meetings back in 1964 and 1965 were held in the basement of St. Louis school.

“It seemed old to me then,” she laughed.

The city must also consider ways of getting back at least some if its $535,000 investment.

“We’re cost-conscious, so that definitely would be something we’re looking at,” said Halloran, though she didn’t rule out a possible public/private partnership with developers.

Whether the city might still have a willing redevelopment applicant in Fahel — one of the region’s foremost developers who already had a plan in place for the building — remains to be seen.

“I’m hopeful to participate in the process of implementing our vision,” said Fahel.

“There is a disconnect between heritage and development. They are paranoid of each other.”

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