Tessa Pearson was the first student to enroll at Our Lady of Mercy Academy when the Catholic high school in downtown Keene opened last year.
On Thursday evening, the Nelson resident, who is entering her sophomore year, was one of three students who officially cut the ribbon in front of the building at 161 Main St. as part of a dedication ceremony postponed from last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s definitely a year in the making, but I’m glad that the area is going to be able to finally experience this, and everyone’s going to be able to see the school,” said Tessa, who graduated from St. Joseph Regional School, the pre-K-through-8th-grade school on the same campus.
After the ceremony, the Mercy Academy held an open house, allowing the public into the building, which previously housed a convent and offices for the Parish of the Holy Spirit, for the first time since it opened as a school.
Chris Smith, the principal of both schools, said Thursday’s event served not only as a celebration of a successful inaugural year, but also a way to thank the parents, donors, students and staff who helped get the Mercy Academy off the ground in the midst of the pandemic. Smith has said that the high school grew out of parents’ desire to choose a Catholic school after their kids graduated from St. Joseph’s.
“It’s strange, a little bit, obviously because we’re open, and we’ve been open for a year,” Smith said. “But I think it’s really important that we thank all of those people that initially got us started and helped with all of the planning and preparing that was needed, that took years to finally get us open. And I just don’t think we ever had that chance to really thank everybody, and maybe publicly thank everybody.”
When classes resume Monday at Mercy Academy, the school will have more than double the number of students it did in its first year. The school, which started with just freshman and sophomore classes, has added a junior class as its enrollment jumped from 16 to 41 for the coming academic year. Mercy Academy plans to add a senior class next year, with the goal of eventually enrolling about 100 students.
“I’m really excited there are going to be a bunch more students,” Tessa said. “Some I know from St. Joe’s, some I haven’t met yet, but I’m really excited to have a bunch of new people be able to experience this, and be able to continue on with all of my classes.”
One of those new students is Emma Schriver, an incoming freshman who lives in Swanzey and Winchester. Emma, who also cut the royal blue ribbon using a pair of oversized scissors, said she is one of four students in her class who has been attending Catholic school in Keene since preschool at St. Joseph’s.
“I’m a little nervous, but I get to go in with most of my class, so that’s kind of easing part of my nerves right now,” she said.
Emma added that she’s particularly excited to participate in Mercy Academy’s house system, which she likened to Hogwarts from the Harry Potter series. But unlike the books, where the houses are named for legendary witches and wizards, Mercy Academy’s four houses are named for Catholic Saints: Ursula, Thomas Aquinas, Drogo and Josephine Bakhita. And rather than being residential groups, the houses at the high school are designed to foster friendships and school spirit in small clusters.
This sort of close-knit experience is what drew Fitsum Visser of Keene and his family to Mercy Academy. Fitsum, who is entering his junior year at the school after attending it last year, was the third ribbon-cutter at Thursday’s ceremony.
“Coming out of freshman year, I was at Keene High, and we were just looking for somewhere that was a bit more individually focused and just a smaller area, a smaller school with a strong community, faith-based, which was really good,” he said.
Fitsum’s father, Ken, said the school has been a great fit for their family, and added that their other son, Melkamu, is starting his freshman year at Mercy Academy.
“They have really small class sizes right now, so that was to his advantage, I think,” Ken Visser said of Fitsum’s experience at Mercy Academy last year. “He’s getting really nice personal instruction.”
And while Fitsum had hoped to begin the new school year without COVID-19 precautions like masking in place, he said he’s always felt safe and comfortable on campus. His mother, Sarah, agreed.
“I really am pleased,” she said. “I really think that they’ve done a great job, and have been just really communicative all along. I feel like they’ve really taken things seriously, and we’re thankful that we really haven’t had any outbreaks.”
Mercy Academy and St. Joseph’s — which has about 210 students — had initially planned to begin the year by allowing parents to choose whether their children would wear masks at school. But after the state health department issued guidance earlier this month recommending schools mandate masks when communities are experiencing substantial COVID-19 transmission (as Cheshire County currently is), the schools adopted the state’s mask matrix, and will begin the year by requiring masks indoors.
“We’re going to be re-evaluating our status and the matrix after the first two weeks, and then every week after that,” Smith said.
The Diocese of Manchester, which oversees 18 Catholic schools statewide, is urging, but not requiring, all staff and students 12 and older to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Smith said St. Joe’s and Mercy Academy could not have made their own decision to mandate coronavirus shots.
“But it is strongly encouraged,” he said. “The position of the diocese is certainly: ‘Get vaccinated.’ “
And with small class sizes, and health and safety measures like masking and increased sanitization, Smith said he’s confident Mercy Academy is on the cusp of a second successful year.
“When many high schools in the country were closed or partially closing, we opened,” he said during the ceremony. “And we stayed open every day all of last year. And we’re here today with more than double our original enrollment, ready to open the doors for year two.”