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Old space becomes new parish center

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Father Michael Gutgsell said he wanted a "Wow" factor when plans moved forward this summer on a parish center for St. Cecilia Cathedral in Omaha.

And that's what he got with the new St. Cecilia Cathedral Parish Center, located on the north end of the old Cathedral High School building at 39th and Webster streets.

"Father kept sending the architects back saying, 'We need a 'Wow.' We need to see something that says this is a special place,'" said Beth Klug, development director for St. Cecilia Parish and School. "They came back with a factor that had that 'Wow' feeling that made it different, made it unique, but made it the cathedral campus."

Renovation of the 6,000-square-foot space began the first week of May and was available for use Oct. 2. The Weitz Company and The Architectural Offices worked on the $1.1 million renovation.

A dedication ceremony is set for Nov. 23. Also at that time, the entire building will be renamed the Msgr. Ernest Graham Building. The building, which opened as a high school in 1950, stretches from Burt Street to Webster Street and houses a cafeteria, gymnasium, cultural center, the St. Cecilia Institute for Archdiocesan Formation of the Laity and the parish center.

"Msgr. Graham was the pastor at the time when the building as an entity was conceived, planned and constructed," said Father Gutgsell, pastor.

Msgr. Graham also planned and built the addition to the high school, which is now St. Cecilia Grade School. He is the one who completed both the interior decoration of the cathedral, finished the exterior construction of the bell towers, and built the current rectory, which also houses the parish offices and the lay apostolate center.

"Literally, his fingerprint is on every building on the campus," Father Gutgsell said. "Plus he is the priest who served the longest in the history of the parish - nine years as an assistant and then 23 years as pastor."

The parish center includes a dining area that can seat up to 150 people, a caterer-friendly kitchen with four heating ovens, a wide hallway with a donor wall and a conference room with a flat screen capable of Powerpoint and Internet access.

"We're hoping that might develop some possibilities with folks in the area," Father Gutgsell said.

The parish center includes a 130-year-old stained glass window of St. Cecilia and a trophy case that will hold memorabilia from Cathedral High School.

The renovation also included making the north entrance of the building handicapped accessible from the sidewalk along Burt Street, and removing brick that had been installed in several windows in the building in the early 1970s because of the energy crisis.

After the high school closed at the end of the 1993-1994 school year due to financial difficulties, the parish center space served as a place for storage, group retreats sponsored by the Archdiocesan Retreat and Conference Center, and funeral luncheons and group meetings.

Fund raising for the renovation began in 2004, and by the end of 2007 the parish had collected about $575,000 from pledges, Father Gutgsell said. The parish continues to raise funds for the refurbishment, he said.

St. Cecilia Cathedral Parish Center is meant to be used by St. Cecilia Parish and groups that use the cathedral, he said. It's also a compliment to the cultural center down the hall, he said. But Father Gutgsell said he is willing to see what other interest arises in the use of the space.

Klug said several members of the City Council, Omaha By Design and the Chamber of Commerce have walked through the parish center and were impressed.

"They said it's easy to go out to west Omaha, buy property and build something new, but it's something else to redevelop what you have, to take what is here, redevelop it, and reinvest in our community, our people and our parish," Klug said. "That was something they were really impressed with ... to use what we have, change it, keep the tradition, but make it a special place."

Want to attend?

What: Dedication and blessing of the Msgr. Ernest Graham Building and the St. Cecilia Cathedral Parish Center

When: Nov. 23, 2 p.m.; open house 1-5 p.m.; St. Cecilia Day concert in the cathedral at 3 p.m.

Where: North entrance of the former Cathedral High School building, 3900 Webster St., Omaha

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