‘The best thing in the world’: Young voices fill former Catholic church in Carondelet
As the kids at Carondelet Academy learn their lines and lyrics in theater and music class, they’re also learning life skills such as being comfortable in front of a crowd.
In 2017, developer Pete Rothschild gave the theater to the Carondelet Leadership Academy charter school, allowing it to expand. Rothschild bought the 158-year-old building and transformed it into a theater 10 years earlier.
The arrangement preserves history for residents in the Carondelet neighborhood while helping the school instill confidence in its students, according to music and theater teacher Chris Daniels.
“What we have going on here is anything but normal,” Daniels said.
Stage is ‘home’ for the kids
Now that the academy owns the theater, kids at the K-8 school see it as just another classroom, Daniels said. It starts on day one, with a game in which one student is “it” and the others have to hold still like a statue when he or she turns around.
“You play it so much on stage and they’re getting comfortable moving on stage, playing a game on stage, concentrating on stage — they want to win the game,” Daniels said. “When it's time that I need them to do something in front of [their] parents, this is home for them.”
Middle schoolers are rehearsing their Nov. 1 fall play, a takeoff on “The Little Rascals.” Heaven Powell, 13, and Shawn Robinson, 11, play the leaders of two rival groups, each vying for the rights to occupy a clubhouse.
“I like the thrill of like being in front of people and like how make sure your, like, nerves feel,” Heaven said.
“I was super nervous when I first came to the stage,” Shawn said. “[Now] I feel cool — you know, I'm middle school.”
But the kids also learn not to get too comfortable in the theater space. As in all areas of the school, they’re expected to use their best manners in the theater, according to principal Apryll Mendez.
“That when you're sitting in the theater in your seat, your feet aren’t on the on the back of the seat in front of you,” Mendez said. “And that we really just try to give all of our attention to the performers because they worked very hard.”
‘Whatever keeps it alive’
Carondelet resident Dolores Roesch also learned how to behave in the Ivory Theatre building. But that was decades ago, when eagle-eyed nuns were in charge at St. Boniface.
“We were all, for 110 years, at that church,” Roesch said. “My family was married, baptized and buried [there].”
St. Boniface was founded in 1861 as a church home for the German immigrants who settled in the neighborhood. A few decades later, Roesch’s grandfather, then 13, emigrated from Germany. Later, he built a house in the shadow of the steeple; Roesch’s mother was born there. So was Delores Roesch.
“The bedrooms were upstairs; my parents had a bedroom down here, and my mom would stand here in the mornings — because there were six of us — and yell our names,” Roesch remembered.
Roesch, 78, still lives there. She attended St. Boniface’s final service in 2005. After that, the building sat vacant for two years.
In 2007, real estate developer Rothschild’s Red Brick Management company bought the church for just over $1 million and spent close to $2 million renovating it as a theater. New Line, NonProphet and Hydeware theater companies were the first to rent it for their performances. Rothschild also produced a show there, a new venture for him.
But soon, theater companies began pulling out, citing difficulties that included the location of electrical outlets and limited access to the stage for set-building.
“To be in the theater business, knowing absolutely nothing about it except having been to shows, was a stupid idea,” Rothschild said.
Rothschild had difficulty selling the building at 7620 Michigan Ave. In January 2017, he gave it to the Carondelet Leadership Academy, which, since 2010, had operated out of two adjacent, former St. Bonifice buildings. St. Louis Shakespeare, which was performing at the Ivory before it belonged to the academy, now rents the space from the school.
Roesch has attended several performances at the Ivory and looks forward to the school’s fall play and its Nov. 9 Veteran’s Day program.
“Whatever keeps it alive and moving,” Roesch said. “I think it’s the best thing in the world.”
The school is also bringing new life to the Ivory Theatre through community-based events. On Nov. 16, St. Louisans are invited to share their talents — ranging from singing to mime to film production — on stage.
It’s a way for the school to give back to the Carondelet area, Daniels said.
“We are trying to support the community and have something for the community — as opposed to just saying, ‘Come out and support what we're doing,’” Daniels said. “We showing them that we're here for them.”
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