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Stella Maris completes purchase of high school site

By Deacon Kyle Eller
The Northern Cross

When Stella Maris Academy, the Catholic elementary and middle school operating across three campuses in Duluth, announced early this year the intention to begin offering high school classes in 2022, few would have imagined that instead of making room at one of the existing campuses, by the end of the year the school would own a large, well-equipped facility adjacent to one of those campuses to house the high school.

In October, Stella Maris Academy purchased The Hills Youth and Family Services, which will provide a space for a new high school beginning in the fall of 2022. (Photo by Deacon Kyle Eller / The Northern Cross) 

That possibility unexpectedly opened up when The Hills Youth and Family Services, next to the St. John’s campus, closed June 30. School officials quickly expressed their interest and submitted a purchase offer, which was accepted Aug. 23. After a series of hurdles and necessary approvals, the purchase was completed in early October.

The purchase marks a kind of homecoming for the facility, which was originally opened in 1910 as St. James Orphanage, operated by the Diocese of Duluth. The late Father Richard Partika, who lived at the orphanage as a child, celebrated his first Mass in its chapel.

The diocese sold the property in 1971 to Woodland Hills, where it provided residential treatment from youth around the region until its closure in June. Over the years it has had multiple renovations and additions.

Stella Maris president Andrew Hilliker says that while renovations will be needed to get it ready for the first classes in the fall of 2022, the facility has 140 acres, a beautiful (and already equipped) gym built in 1998, a cafeteria, a chapel in which to celebrate Mass, and a secure facility, all things a Catholic high school would need.

“All of these things exist with this property,” he said.

He added that there is ample space in the main building for other mission-minded organizations to rent out. And apart from the main building, there are multiple outbuilding, like a barn and an activity center.

Hilliker, who is in his first months as the academy’s president, said when he took the job, one of his concerns was about where they were going to put the high school, and it’s something he’d been praying about. He said God answered those prayers “with abundance.”

Money raised by private donors

At $4 million, the purchase was a significant one. Within the church, it required approval from diocesan committees and even the Vatican.

But Hilliker said although there will be operating costs, the money for the purchase was raised entirely through private donors and came quickly, with a sense of divine providence. “$4 million within a week, I would say,” he said.

He said offering Catholic high school in Duluth and in the diocese has been a conversation and a hunger for decades, and the facility makes it “really real” that it’s happening.

He said faculty, staff, families, and the whole community have been supportive.

The academy’s leadership team is already largely moved into the facility, the property is being prepared for winter, and work is being done to determine how best to phase in high schools classes in the fall — the first traditional Catholic high school in the city in 50 years.

Also yet to be determined is a new name for the high school, which Hilliker says will come “in the short term.”

“Many people have been working hard and praying for a long-term, viable place to welcome students to high school in the Fall of 2022,” Hilliker said in a news release. “This property is bringing our efforts and goals to a very real and meaningful place. Our students will feel the benefits of this for years to come and we are forever grateful for the opportunity.”