Community

Tom Eblen: Renovated downtown school is ready to put on a show

Sts. Peter and Paul Regional Catholic School is across Short Street from the Explorium and Lexington Children's Theatre.  The school is opening its restored 250-seat theater for use by local arts groups. The first two events are a Gallery Hop exhibit Friday and a concert Feb. 24. . Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com
Sts. Peter and Paul Regional Catholic School is across Short Street from the Explorium and Lexington Children's Theatre. The school is opening its restored 250-seat theater for use by local arts groups. The first two events are a Gallery Hop exhibit Friday and a concert Feb. 24. . Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Sts. Peter and Paul Regional Catholic School, a fixture in downtown Lexington for 98 years, is inviting the community to see its $12 million renovation and expansion.

The school will be a stop Friday night during Gallery Hop, with an exhibit of student art chosen from the region's Catholic schools. Then, on Feb. 24, Sts. Peter and Paul will launch a monthly concert, "Series With the Saints," in the school's elegantly restored 250-seat theater.

The first concert in this series is special: a recital of songs written by the late Kentucky folk music legend John Jacob Niles in collaboration with Thomas Merton, the famous author and Trappist monk who lived at the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown until his death in 1968.

The recital, "Written in the Stars," will feature mezzo-soprano Sherri Phelps and pianist Rachel Taylor, with special guest Jacqueline Roberts, who was Niles' performance partner from 1967 until his death in 1980.

Using Merton's poetry, Niles wrote 22 songs specifically for Roberts' voice, seven of which are included in this recital. The show will feature photographs, audio and video recordings about Niles and Merton, with commentary from Roberts.

"In many ways, this is an evening to honor Jackie," Phelps said. "She's the primary source for the material, and she has been passing on the performance practices, teaching them to me."

Phelps and Taylor have doctorates in music. Taylor teaches piano at Eastern Kentucky University. Phelps is an opera singer who has performed throughout this country and Europe. But this material, which blends Niles' folk music with Merton's poetry, has special appeal for them.

"When I was studying at Juilliard in New York, this was the only Kentuckian's music I ever heard at the school," said Phelps, a Morgantown native. "I felt a special need to champion this music.

"And Thomas Merton is so intimately connected with Kentucky's Catholic heritage. This is the only song cycle he ever collaborated on with a composer."

This spring, the recital will begin a national tour with a performance at Mission San José in California.

Phelps said Sts. Peter and Paul's restored W. Paul and Lucille Caudill Little Theatre will be the perfect place for the show's premiere. It is a large but intimate space with great acoustics and lighting, and a new grand piano. It is a hidden gem on the second floor of the school that serves students from throughout Central Kentucky.

The original school was built in 1913, on West Short Street between historic St. Paul Catholic Church and the Lexington Opera House. In a major commitment to downtown, the school has been more than doubled in size, with a new classroom addition and gymnasium, said Jeanne Miller, a school parent who helped to organize the project.

The school project has attracted 550 donors, including the Lucille Caudill Little Foundation, which helped to restore the theater. Alltech donated science labs, and the Knights of Columbus helped pay for the gymnasium.

The 1913 building was carefully restored to make it modern while retaining its original architectural beauty. Sts. Peter and Paul reopened in August with 490 students in grades one through eight at the renovated Short Street campus and younger children at a school beside St. Peter Catholic Church on Barr Street.

As with the new gymnasium, now used by many Lexington youth teams, Sts. Peter and Paul wants the renovated theater to be well used. Children from nearby Harrison Elementary School and residents of Ashland Terrace retirement home have been brought in to see school performances. The school also is partnering with Lexington Children's Theatre, its neighbor across Short Street, on a summer theater camp.

"This was such a community space in the early 1900s," Miller said. "The goal is to re-create that today, to make it not just an asset for the school but for the entire community."

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