GERMANTOWN, TN (WMC) - With music, song, prayer and joy, the Madonna Learning Center family celebrated the grand opening of its spectacular new $10 million state-of-the-art campus.
In his homily during a Mass celebrating the opening of the brightly painted new school buildings, Rev. Eric Peterson told students, teachers, staff and generous benefactors, "Welcome to the University of Madonna."
The upgraded campus is a far cry from the school's humble origins in the now shuttered St. Peter Orphanage and St. James Catholic Church on Leroy Street in East Memphis.
Jo Gilbert, Madonna's Executive Director, thanked all those who made the new campus a reality, including Hope Presbyterian Church.
"They opened their loving arms with grace; we can't thank them enough," Gilbert said.
Madonna moved to the Hope Presbyterian campus for a year so that demolition and construction could go forward at 7007 Poplar Avenue in Germantown, Tennessee. The changes are dramatic. There are larger classrooms so each child can receive individualized attention from teachers and staff.
There's a pre-school classroom for 3- to 5-year-olds. The separate adult student center on Madonna's upgraded campus has a business setting. There's a spectacular new gym with a stage and padded floors that served as the gathering place for the celebratory Mass and was transformed into a cafeteria for lunch. There are new administrative offices and better security with improved monitoring and access control.
In her remarks, Gilbert also honored Madonna's founding families, as well the Catholic nuns from Indiana who were recruited to work with special needs children in Memphis. Sister Mary Mark Graf pioneered Madonna in its formative years at St. James parish. Sister Mary Mark discovered the Germantown property for sale in 1996 and purchased it with donations she had invested quietly over the years.
Madonna flourished in Germantown, but numerous buildings needed significant repair and some didn't meet building codes. The school's Board of Trustees decided in 2012 that the aging structures needed to be replaced.
Led by Campaign chair Barbara Daush, the outgoing President of St. Agnes Academy and St. Dominic School, Madonna has raised pledges of $9.3 million of its $10 million campaign goal. It was enough for Madonna to move to Hope Presbyterian while demolition and new construction could take place at 7007 Poplar.
In less than 14 months, architects, engineers and builders recreated the school that serves special needs children and adults.
"This is a dream," said Lilly Kingsley, mother of now 53 year old Johnny Kingsley, who started at Madonna as a 5 year old in 1967. "Put him in an institution and go on with your life," Ms. Kingsley said she was told.
Instead, the Kingsleys and Madonna's founding father, former Memphis Fire Services Director Robert Winfield, persevered by keeping their special needs children at home and creating Madonna Day School with the help of Sister Mary Mark and many others.
"I'm currently employed at the Performance Evaluation Branch of the U.S. Navy," said Keith Winfield, a 53-year-old graduate of Madonna and son of the school's founder. "It was my daddy Robert Winfield who wrote the first letters expressing a need for such a school to be established in Memphis, Tennessee, to churches and various organizations that made this day come together."
"It's an amazing story what happens now with our children and (what society thought) they could not do then," Ms. Kingsley said.
With more music and song, hundreds gathered in front of the new Madonna campus at noon and watched students, parents, benefactors and school leaders cut the ribbon on a new era in educating special needs children in the Mid-South.