Hill-Murray purchase just a start on reinvestment in school

As far as a turnaround goes, Hill-Murray’s has been significant.

“I remember when they were down to about 700 students, and now they’re up to about 1,000,” Maplewood Mayor Bob Cardinal recalls.

The school, which at one point in the early 1990s was beating back rumors that it was closing, recently entered a purchase agreement that will for the first time make the site its building sits on, plus about 4 acres of fields, strictly Hill-Murray property.

The land in play is jointly owned by the Archdiocese of St. Paul and St. Paul’s Monastery. The monastery buildings just north of Hill-Murray, and the property the Benedictine sisters who inhabit it own, will remain theirs.

The school’s purchase “really is a pivotal moment in Hill-Murray history, in that we’re no longer tenants,” says the school’s President Joseph M. Peschges. “Rather, we’d be the owners of the property, and once you are owning it, it opens up so many more possibilities.”

The “possibilities” are already on a master plan, for $20 million of ambitious reinvestment in the property. “It’s a 1958 building, and it needs upgrades,” Peschges says frankly. The plan calls for updates to classrooms, finishing touches for the auditorium, a new fieldhouse, updated science labs, an updated library/media center and an updated studio arts area.

The firm establishment of the school on its own property, with plans to take it well into the future, is good news for the area, Cardinal says. “I think they investigated moving (to establish a campus in a city further east) and came to the conclusion that their alumni decided it was important to stay,” he says. “Maplewood is very fortunate to have Hill-Murray. In the past, it has been recognized as probably the best school in the state, and now Mounds Park Academy is in competition with them. They complement each other, and as a community, we’re very fortunate to have them.”

Peschges declined to specify a geographical area he and the Hill-Murray Foundation Board will focus on for the capital they need for the improvements. “We have all of our alums, who are literally around the globe, our past parents, our current parents and our friends of the school, who are from all over. Those are the people who have been standing behind the school for the past 35-40 years.”

Peschges adds that the purchase should not be seen as drawing the school away from its roots. “Certainly, it is our intention to keep the Benedictine tradition and thought as well as the Christian Brothers thought that established Hill-Murray,” he notes. (Hill High School for boys was operated by the Christian Brothers at the campus where Mounds Park Academy is now, and Archbishop Murray, for girls, was operated by the Benedictines on the campus where the merged school is located now.)

“The school remains a Catholic school,” Peschges adds. “It is just a matter of corporate ownershiop in controlling the campus and allowing us to plan in order to do long-term capital financing.”

Though the building program might allow “a few” more students than the current 1,000 enrolled in grades 7-12, Peschges says the school will hold close to that number so as not to change the size and character of its community.

The purchase agreement is expected to be finalized in a few months.

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