The convent where Sister Mary Sharon Verbeck once lived is now part of St. Pius X High School’s largest fundraising effort.
And Verbeck, 88, is an honorary co-chairwoman of the $7 million Warrior Pride Capital Campaign, which will raise funds for sports fields and trails and tennis courts. Students have already moved into a new arts center at the school, 1500 N.E. 42nd Terrace.
The three-year campaign was launched in 2016 to celebrate the school’s 60th anniversary. Verbeck has been part of that history for 45 years.
She still works at least one day a week at the high school, where she has an office.
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“I’m like a counselor,” she said of her position at St. Pius. “I take time to listen to the students.”
From 42 students in 1956, all freshmen and sophomores, St. Pius has grown to educate now an average of some 400 students in ninth through 12th grades. It opened as a one-story building on a 17-acre tract in the countryside and has expanded over the years.
In the early years of the school, the convent played an important role. Almost half of the faculty were members of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth.
Before St. Pius X High School was built, there was no Catholic high school between the Missouri River and St. Joseph.
A Catholic high school was necessary to the Northland, Verbeck explained, because education involves more than knowledge. It includes developing character and instilling values.
“All students are getting theology here,” Verbeck said. “It’s especially important for teenagers who might not get to church on Sunday.”
Verbeck, a 1946 graduate of Bishop Ward High School in Kansas City, Kan., remembers when St. Pius opened.
“It was all country here,” she said. “There were very few houses nearby.”
St. Pius is still the only Catholic high school in the Northland, but the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth who taught at the school have been gone for almost 30 years.
The Sisters gradually moved out of the convent to retire or serve in other missions. Verbeck is the only one who remains.
“The teenagers keep me young and hoppin’,” Verbeck said.
She is pleased that the convent that housed her and other Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth is becoming an arts and activities center for the students she cares so much about.
Already more than $4.8 million has been raised, and renovations to the convent are nearly complete. Of the $7 million, $5.5 million will be used to build a sports complex and $1.5 million will pay for renovations to the convent.
Music and art students now are enjoying new classroom space in the former convent.
Athletes will have to wait a little longer, until 2020, for the new sports complex to open.
Funds have been used to purchase 45 wooded acres about a half mile south of the school to build cross country trails, a soccer practice field, tennis courts and softball and baseball fields for St. Pius athletes who now have none of their own.
“Having so many sports all in one place will boost school spirit,” said Jack Lewis, 17, a junior and member of the cross country team.
Currently, cross country runners must train off site, avoiding traffic on city streets. They often can be seen running single file around the school on Davidson Road and on sidewalks and back roads.
The school’s tennis players practice on the four courts at Old Pike Country Club in Gladstone.
To host a meet, they must find courts available, such as at those at other high schools.
“We never have a home court advantage,” said Abbie Webb, 16, a sophomore and member of the girls tennis team. “We never have our own courts that we’re familiar and comfortable with.”
With Pius sports competitions scattered throughout the city, Jack and Abbie said few people — other than parents of players — attend their events. School officials expect that to change when the new complex opens. It will be located in a tract of land between North Holmes Street and Northeast Davidson Road, with Northeast 39th Terrace to the north.
“Everything in the same place will help attract more fans,” said Melanie Martin, advancement director and mother of a Pius tennis player. “We can have a tennis match and a softball game at the same time, for example.”
Currently, before practice begins, those who play tennis, soccer, softball and baseball must spend as much as 30 minutes driving to a site, such as the A.J. Wilson Sports Complex on North Brighton Avenue about nine miles from the school. At times, baseball practice has been held in the parking lot if a field was not available.
Though Abbie and Jack are excited about the new sports complex, they’ll probably not get to use it before they graduate. But Pius athletes, parents and coaches appreciate what the complex means to the future of school sports.
“New courts will give them more playing time,” said James Thornburg, tennis coach and U.S. history teacher. “And we can host tennis matches and tournaments here.”
Eight tennis courts will allow more students to be on the team, too, Thornburg said. Although interest in tennis is high, he must limit the size of the team now because players have only four courts to practice on, and they are not in walking distance.
With tennis courts less than a mile from school, students can walk to them if necessary rather than depending on a ride.
Art and music students walk to their new facilities, too, but theirs is a quick jaunt across the school parking lot.
The art classroom is more like a studio, said Toni Hess, art teacher and a 1991 Pius graduate.
“It’s way different from what we had,” Hess said. “We have windows facing north with better natural light, a kiln for the first time, a place for stand-up easels for drawing, a trough for a sink.”
Hess teaches 130 students in classes ranging from fundamentals of art to Advanced Placement to independent study.
“The most exciting new thing is the outdoor classroom,” Hess said. “Students can sit outside and draw.”
The outdoor area will be adjacent to the former convent and built like an amphitheater with a lecture platform and tiered seating. Construction is scheduled to start this month and projected to be ready later this semester.
Mick Witherow, a general contractor and a 1984 graduate, is renovating the convent. Witherow remembers when the convent was home to teachers and administrators from the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, including the principal at that time, Sister Rita Smith.
“This is a great opportunity to revive this building,” he said.
The convent was built in 1958, two years after the high school opened its doors, and the Sisters lived there until the early 1990s.
Witherow respects that history and has kept it in mind as he renovates the 22,000-square-foot building.
“I’m a sentimentalist,” Witherow said. “I want to preserve and continue the legacy of what the Sisters started.”
He has honored the Sisters’ memory by salvaging what can be re-used for the new occupants. The old laundry room sink, for example, has been installed in the art room. All the convent doors have been refinished and used again.
The convent will become the Fred and Rosalie Ross Fine Arts and Activity Center, named for the parents of Fred Ross Jr., a 1976 graduate who donated $1 million for the school in 2016 — the largest single donation in the school’s history. He and his 11 siblings are all graduates of St. Pius.
Convent renovations began in May. Classrooms for broadcasting, art and vocal music are on the ground level. The first floor will house the Catholic Radio Network and its 10 stations, relocating from Excelsior Springs, and the second floor will be used for banquets, class reunions and meetings.
Verbeck has been witness to all kinds of changes throughout the years. She worked at the school as secretary to the principal from 1972 to 1981 and from 1984 to 2007; she was a secretary to four principals. She also supervised the cafeteria and study hall, managed the bookstore and the office and compiled a state report.
Over the years, she has listened to countless students who talk freely with her. The school principal, Joe Monachino Jr., a 1981 graduate, was one of those.
“I’ve known him since he was 9,” she said.
Plans for the cross country trails, the tennis courts, soccer practice fields and baseball and softball fields are only the beginning. As donations continue to come in, the campaign will enter a second phase with improvements to the football field and track.
A fine arts center and a new sports complex are more than a nod to safety and convenience for Pius students. They acknowledge the aptitude of the students with facilities to match their talents: more than 70 percent of recent graduates earned academic or athletic scholarships.
Verbeck speaks with pride about the Pius students.
“They are so generous with their time,” she said. “They love to serve the poor.”
For more information
St. Pius X High School
1500 N.E. 42nd Terrace, Kansas City
To contribute to the campaign, click on Warrior Pride Capital Campaign