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20101029_Juan-Diego-Academy_0080MISSION — Come August a group of high school freshmen will be the first to reinvigorate the former St. Peter Novitiate and Diocesan Seminary as a new site for education – Juan Diego Academy, the first Catholic high school in Hidalgo County.

Following last year’s fire that destroyed the novitiate, board members for the high school approached Bishop Daniel E. Flores about getting help for a site. Paul Rodriguez, the board’s chairperson, said the bishop acted quickly.

“For someone who just arrived on the scene, he made the time for us at a critical juncture, when we had given up,” Rodriguez said. “We still have milestones to complete, but without Bishop Flores – literally – we wouldn’t be here today.”

Members of the school’s board said they had been working for more than 20 years to bring a high school to the upper Rio Grande Valley. The only school of its kind is in Brownsville.

At a special groundbreaking ceremony last week for the science and math buildings, local church and community leaders gathered to hear about the school’s plans and the history of the Catholic landmark.

“This is holy land,” said Mission City Manager Julio Cerda. “This is where Mission got its start, so we got to take care of it.”

City officials helped local priests stop the demolition of the novitiate last fall and all that remains now is the façade. A study on the structure is still being completed, but Cerda said the city is confident it will be able to use the façade for a future structure. Thus far, consultants have said the structure is fine and immediate repairs include removing unstable bricks on the edge of the structure.

“We’re working hard to improve this area,” Cerda said. “It’s a beautiful façade and we’re going to try to build on that and we’re excited.”

Named after Saint Juan Diego, school officials said they hope their students embody his virtues.

“Young people need an environment of faith,” Flores said. “This school is intimately linked to the Virgin Mary.”

Sister Marcella Ewers, the president of the school, said the board was happy to be able to continue a new legacy on the novitiate grounds. She said she was confident the ongoing support from the Diocese of Brownsville and the Mission community would help the school strive.

“Isn’t it a wonderful thing we are passing, this remarkable heritage?” Ewers asked the crowd.

Juan Diego Academy Principal Robert Schmidt said there were three local feeder schools for the campus that have helped the school organize itself to be ready to open in the fall.

“Imagine students scurrying around with laptops,” Schmidt said as he described where the new science and math buildings would be constructed. “Imagine all the fun times.”

For local priests who had regarded St. Peter’s Novitiate as some of the most sacred ground in the diocese, the addition of the school was welcomed after the property had been relatively vacant for years.

“I thought it was a beautiful idea,” said Fr. Roy Snipes of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. “We’re really making great use of the place.”

The school bringing in new students would be passing the torch initially held by priests who took their first vows at St. Peter’s Novitiate, he added.

One of those priests is Fr. James Pfeifer who recently celebrated his 59th year as a priest after taking his first vows here in 1945.

“I’m glad I’m still around to see new life in this place,” Pfeifer said. “It’s great to see it come back to life, but it can’t die, we knew it would never die.”

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