As far as Catholic Schools Weeks go, students at St. Gertrude the Great Catholic School in Bell Gardens had a pretty good one.

On the morning of Wednesday, Feb. 2, a sea of plastic chairs — 244 of them to be exact — were arranged on the school parking lot for them to witness a special moment in the 72-year-old school’s history: the inauguration of a new multi-use building, which will house the school’s first STEM lab as well as transitional kindergarten, kindergarten and first grade classrooms for students who have, until now, been meeting in the school cafeteria. For the first time, teachers now have a faculty lounge as well as a space for meetings.

Joining Archbishop José H. Gomez and Auxiliary Bishop Marc V. Trudeau for the ribbon-cutting ceremony was another special guest: Carrie Shea Tilton, a trustee of the Shea Family Foundation, which has emerged as a key benefactor for LA-area Catholic schools in need of a helping hand.

Archbishop Jose H. Gomez and Carrie Shea Tilton of the Shea Family Foundation cut the ribbon at the dedication and blessing of the new multi-use building at St. Gertrude the Great School in Bell Gardens Feb. 2, 2022, during Catholic Schools Week. (Victor Alemán)

“My favorite term for these kinds of projects is ‘transformative,’” said Tilton. 

Transformative, indeed, but for anyone familiar with what St. Gertrude was like just a few years ago, another term also applies: miraculous.

It was just over a decade ago that the school seemed destined for closure: enrollment had dropped to just 44 students. 

In 2015, when now-pastor Fr. Nabor Rios arrived at the school’s parish, the number had inched over 100 and now, seven years later, it stands — and sits in plastic chairs — at 244.

When asked about the school’s turnaround, Father Rios credits school principal Peggy Weber, who came to St. Gertrude three years ago, for bringing energy and a greater sense of trust to the community. 

The new building, says Weber, creates a “a place of permanence, a place of belonging that kids will be able to say ‘this is my classroom.’

“I think for the community, for Catholic education in this community, I think the building speaks to that,” added Weber, beaming as she led visitors on a tour of the new building. 

Archbishop Gomez and Auxiliary Bishop Marc V. Trudeau bless St. Gertrude's new multi-use building with holy water. (Victor Alemán)

In many ways, the building embodies what the last decade or two have been like for many Catholic schools in Los Angeles: dwindling enrollment, crumbling infrastructure, and an uncertain future just a few years ago, but now enjoying a once-unthinkable comeback.

Catholic schools Superintendent Paul Escala, who attended the Wednesday morning ceremony, told Angelus that Catholic schools across the Archdiocese of Los Angeles have recently seen the biggest increases in enrollment in three decades. Escala believes the gains have come not in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic, but because of it. 

“During the pandemic, families have had time to not only reflect on what’s important to them, but starting to realize what they’re kids are learning in school and really reflect on if these are the things they want their child to be formed in,” he said. 

Tilton agrees.

“I think there is so much turmoil in our world, in our communities, that families have deep concerns in raising their children in unsafe, unwelcoming environments,” she said. “Catholic schools can provide beautiful, safe welcoming spiritual environments for their kids, in addition to high quality education.”

The Shea Family Foundation has been a key player in maintaining that standard, whether through repairs, refurbishment or new construction at schools. Its efforts will continue at At St. Gertrude, Weber said, through a new tuition initiative that is already helping families with the cost of education and will continue to do so in the future.

“There is no better investment, because we’re investing in children,” Tilton said. “But we’re also investing in the soil, not just planting the tree, but investing in the soil that the tree is planted, so that it will continue to thrive.”

Ultimately, what helped convince the Shea Foundation to support the Bell Gardens school was that it had a critical element in what makes a Catholic school successful: an ongoing, healthy, communicative relationship between school principal and parish pastor.

St. Gertrude principal Peggy Weber speaks at Mass the morning of Feb. 2. (Victor Alemán)

At the ceremony, Weber and Fr. Rios seemed to go out of their way to give the other credit not only for the new facility, but the school’s turnaround.

“Fr. Nabor’s answer is always yes,” said Weber. “How can you ask for anything more than that?”

While relying in large part on a grant from the Shea Foundation, the school’s renovation has also counted on financial support from the parish community. Fr. Rios said that the level of involvement reflects something special in his parishioners. 

“Trust is very important,” said Fr. Rios. “This will inspire more parents to bring their children here, and that’s the goal.”

Analise Osnaya has been at St. Gertrude the majority of her life. Now the 8th grade class president, she and other members of the student council welcomed guests and served them refreshments from inside the new faculty lounge the morning of the ceremony. 

Osnaya has been a student at St. Gertrude since kindergarten, and remembers going to class in the mobile bungalows that once stood where the new building now sits.

“There were creaky floors, yeah, it was old,” she said. And yet, she admits to being sentimental when the bungalows were torn down to make way for the new construction. “When they knocked it down, I wanted to cry.”

She jokes that it’s not lost on her that she won’t be able to take much use of the new building, since she’ll be graduating in a few months.

St. Gertrude students wait for the Feb. 2 ribbon-cutting ceremony to get underway. (Victor Alemán)

”Yeah, I’m a bit salty about that,” she laughs. Having gone through the hard times — there were barely 100 students enrolled when she started at St. Gertrude — has brought this community “closer together,” and the new facility is a fruit of that. 

“This is a sign of us growing,” she said. “We’ve grown as students, as a school and as a community. I know I’m going to be proud to come back and see this because it’s a sign of what we can do, a sign of what’s coming.”