There’s No Place Like Home Court for Bronx School

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Elijah McGhee is shooting a basketball through a rim 10 feet above a gym floor instead of a garbage can sitting on a cafeteria floor now that Our Lady of Grace School in the Bronx has a gym to call home.

The Jaguars hosted their first basketball games Dec. 22 after playing all road games a season ago when the fifth- and sixth-grade and seventh- and eighth-grade boys’ teams went undefeated against opponents from the Bronx and Westchester County.

Elijah was a member of last season’s fifth- and sixth-grade team.

“When I found out a gym was coming, I was excited,” said the seventh-grader of the new gym. “It’s nice to have your own gym to practice and have games in there. I never thought my school would have the chance to get a gym.”

Our Lady of Grace Church was renovated into a gymnasium and three classrooms—music room, art studio and STREAM lab—to meet the growing needs of the school with 400 students in pre-kindergarten 3 through eighth grade.

The renovation was made possible by a grant from the Shea Family Foundation.

“It was a dream to see a gym and it has come true,” said Leon Gorham, a 2005 graduate who is the school’s physical education teacher and basketball coach. “When I walked in after it was done, it was awesome. I didn’t want to leave.

“Sometimes I wake up and I feel in awe we have a gym in our building...I can’t put into words how I feel about the gym being there. I’m pretty excited.”

In August 2015, the merged parish of St. Frances of Rome, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Anthony and Our Lady of Grace was formed as part of the archdiocese’s Making All Things New pastoral planning initiative. Father Georginus E. Ugwu, M.S.P., is the pastor.

Our Lady of Grace Church, which was used only for special occasions following the merger, last hosted school graduation ceremonies in 2018. Renovations soon began to accommodate the needs of the school, which has nearly doubled in enrollment since Rich Helmrich became principal nine years ago. Elements of the original church building, most notably stained glass windows, remain.

Students use the 4,972-square-foot gymnasium for physical education classes and recess as well as the school’s basketball and volleyball teams.

“When I came here, there was no sports program at all,” Helmrich said. “I looked at ways to implement a sports program in our school and always envisioned a place for kids to play.”

Before the gymnasium opened, physical education classes and basketball practices were held in the cafeteria. Students ran laps in the hallways and stairways. Garbage cans were used as makeshift basketball hoops as the cafeteria ceiling was not high enough for a regulation 10-foot rim with backboard.

“Instead of denying them the opportunity, we’d see what we had onsite and make the best possible use of it,” Helmrich said. “We’d teach them with hard work, teamwork and determination, you can overcome any obstacle.”

Helmrich said the school is planning an official opening celebration in the spring for the gym and classrooms with representatives from the Shea Family Foundation and archdiocesan personnel.

“This is a Christmas gift that will last for generations to come,” the principal said. “The thing I’m most proud of is I found the facility to reflect the character of the students we have.”

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