St. Francis Catholic School

Students and parents arrive at St. Francis Catholic School on the first day Wednesday.

CASEY PAGE, Gazette Staff

Outside the new St. Francis Catholic School, teachers held placards signaling their grade level to students — kindergarten through eighth-grade. 

It's the first time the grade levels will be under one roof for Billings Catholic Schools. Students streamed through the school's doors for their first day Wednesday after a ceremony celebrating the school's completion and years of fundraising that paid for it. 

"A lot of people put their blood, sweat and tears into making this happen," said Diocese of Great Falls-Billings Bishop Michael Warfel. 

Warfel, who blessed the school, was among several speakers before the first day officially got underway. 

He encouraged students and teachers to "strive whole-heartedly to stand by Christ as their teacher. ... May the Holy Spirit bring you to the knowledge of all truth."

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St. Francis Catholic School

St. Francis Catholic School students react as Bishop Michael Warfel blesses the new school to start the first day of classes Wednesday.

Construction began on the new building in April. Its students were previously spread across St. Francis Primary School, St. Francis Intermediate School and St. Francis Upper.

Combined, the schools had about about 650 students enrolled last year. The new school was built to accommodate 25 percent enrollment growth. 

The project was pitched with an $18 million fundraising goal. Documents from the diocese's bankruptcy list the school's price tag at $15.1 million. 

Rita Turley, who co-chaired the school's fundraising campaign, cited five separate donations of at least $1 million that helped pay for the project. The school system hired a consultant in 2011 to look at fundraising possibilities, and efforts raked in almost $10 million before the plans for the school were announced in 2014.

School officials committed to funding the school through private donations, not tuition increases. About $2.7 million is needed to fully fund the project.

The 36-classroom building includes the addition of a gym, locker rooms and an upgraded playground.

Parent Nate Haney has three children attending the new school and one more in preschool. Before, the children were split between two schools. 

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St. Francis Catholic School

Members of the Knights of Columbus stand with flags as students arrive at St. Francis Catholic School on the first day Wednesday.

"It's convenient for sure," he said. 

His family toured the school at an open house earlier this summer. His second-grader was a little intimidated by the school's size, but Haney liked a design that clusters similar grade levels within the building and was pleased with new music facilities and new spaces for one-on-one academic work. 

"In the older buildings you just had that on the floor in the hall," he said. 

School system president Shaun Harrington briefly put on his educator hat between speeches to address students.

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St. Francis Catholic School

St. Francis Catholic School line up for the ceremonies on the first day Wednesday.

"This is a new building," he said. "Take care of it."

Mayor Tom Hanel briefly spoke to the crowd.

"The sky has opened up this morning, and someone up there is looking down," he said.  

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Education reporter for the Billings Gazette.