This article is the first in our Sunday Series, a bi-monthly feature about the role of faith in the Lowell community. Upcoming articles will profile area churches, people and faith-based initiatives, and we welcome your suggestions for future stories.
Sometimes a library is just a collection of books and tables. Sometimes, it’s something more.
At St. Patrick School, the library is something more. It is the culmination of hard work and prayers of parishioners who have called this school home for generations. What’s more, when students step inside, they are reminded of another student who walked these halls nearly 90 years ago.
Many People, One Goal
At a time when some schools are eliminating libraries because of budget cuts, St. Patrick School faced a different challenge. An exploding student population and increased technology needs meant the library took up valuable space that could be utilized for other purposes.
“We certainly could have converted the library to a classroom,” says principal Scott Czarnopys. “That was an option, but not one anyone wanted to pursue.”
However, keeping the library meant the room would need a complete overhaul to absorb a neighboring media center which was being replaced with a classroom. The new library required a different shelving system, furniture that could be easily reconfigured to accommodate multiple uses and a flexible design that would integrate the latest technology.
It was a tall order, but one that got done. While many people were involved in the project, it was really all thanks to the memory of a woman who never left the house without her rosary and prayer book.
A Legacy for Bea
Over the summer, the library space at St. Patrick School transformed into the Bea Byrne Learning Center. The center was named in memory of one of the school’s earliest graduates.
Bea attended St. Patrick back when the school had a high school in addition to an elementary school. She graduated in 1929 and went on to raise nine children as part of a 53-year marriage to her beloved husband Raymond.
“My mother was a very determined person,” says Norm Byrne. “She had a heart as big as anything, and she dearly loved children.”
So when Norm and his wife Rosemary heard the school needed to overhaul its library, they were happy to pitch in any way possible. “We thought it would be a great legacy to leave,” Rosemary says.
Their support was right in line with Bea’s philosophy of life too. Raising a family in the midst of the Great Depression was undoubtedly hard, but Bea never let it damper her generous spirit. It’s a trait her family says she carried throughout her life.
“You never went to her house without her wanting to share something,” Rosemary says, adding that apple bread was one of her specialties. “Whatever she had she wanted to share.”
Coming Together in Memory of their Families
The Byrnes weren’t the only ones helping to renovate the library who had a family connection to the school. “My relatives have been going here for a hundred years,” says Dave Powell. His mother, Phyllis Nugent, graduated in 1962, and like the Byrnes, Dave was excited to be part of the project.
He and his wife Kelli own Enwork, an office space solutions company in Lowell. Dave took on the design of the new center and helped furnish it. “We wanted a flexible environment so we could have different methods of learning in a single school day,” Dave says.
As a result, the center has tables that fold up and can easily be moved to the side. A cart of Chromebooks is available for students to use and charging stations are integrated into some tables. There is a smart TV on the wall and moveable stools that can be configured to accommodate student groups of various sizes.
As for the books, they are now displayed in richly-hued wood bookshelves that line the perimeter of the room. Like virtually everyone else involved in the project, the artisans who handcrafted the shelves also have a deep connection to St. Patrick School. They work for Nugent Builders, a company whose owner has many family members nurtured academically and spiritually at the 123-year old school.
Fitting Dedication for the Bea Byrne Learning Center
Bishop David Walkowiak came to see the new learning center for himself during a special visit to St. Patrick School on November 18, 2016. After celebrating Mass with the school children, the entire assembly processed to the Bea Byrne Learning Center for its dedication.
During the ceremony, which was attended by students, staff and benefactors among others, Bishop Walkowiak prayed: “Almighty and everlasting God, grant to this school the grace of your presence that you may be known as an inhabitant of this building and [its] defender.”
Afterward, guests mingled and Norm and Rosemary took a closer look at the new learning space dedicated to their mother. “She would be quite impressed,” Norm said. “She would be very humbled.”
Nearby, another guest admires the custom-made shelf, complete with a ladder on a sliding rail. It’s a touch that would be just as much at home in a 1929 library as it is in the modern learning center. Yes, Bea would approve.