BY PATTIE DURHAM
If these walls could talk is an oft-used phrase regarding old buildings and the St. Anastasia School in Fort Pierce is no exception. It has been more than 50 years since the laughter of children and the joy of learning, mixed with the corrections from teachers, were heard in its halls and classrooms.
If the optimistic plans of Cindy Bridges, president and director of Lindsay School of the Arts, come to fruition, these walls once again will be ringing with the joyful sounds of children in its classrooms. In a unique partnership with the City of Fort Pierce, Bridges has signed a 20-year lease, with the possibility of a 10-year extension, permitting her to apply for grant funding and to seek donations for the expected $4 million renovation of the more than 100-year-old structure.
Lindsay School of the Arts was opened in 2017 in Fort Pierce. Bridges and her husband, Dorrian, founded the school, which is named after her lifelong friend, Lindsay Pashkow, who died at age 21 of a brain aneurysm. Bridges, a graduate of Treasure Coast High School, grew up in Port St. Lucie across the street from Lindsay and the two quickly became best friends.
“Lindsay had three major open heart surgeries in her life,” Bridges says, “but she got to live out her wish to work at Shands Hospital in Gainesville, working with the nurses and doctors who helped her. She was working there when she died.”
Bridges’ plans for the school building have begun. She purchased an insurance policy on the property and has spoken with local architect Don Bergman. The City of Fort Pierce added a metal roof on the building and put in new storm windows on all floors some time ago. In 2000, the structure was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“I am working on a grant application for the National Trust right now,” Bridges says. “We can legally ask people to donate money, whereas the city, the owner of the property, cannot seek donations. People are concerned about city tax dollars being spent here. If it was going to be done with city tax-payer dollars, it would have been done long ago.”
Bridges says that the St. Anastasia project’s estimated $4 million budget is small compared to the projects the National Trust usually funds. She adds that she meets monthly with Shyanne Helms, the city’s project manager for St. Anastasia, and Caleta Scott, grant manager for the city.
“The thing being done currently is the architectural plan with Don Bergman. The next step will be to hire an environmental company to remove any mold or asbestos in the building, but I have not hired anyone yet. That will probably be grant-funded. The general contractor comes after that. That is Charley McEntee. I will only hire local, and am hoping to find people that will help, maybe by donating time or materials.”
Bridges added that Fort Pierce Utility Authority is adding some exterior lighting to the property for security and safety which she hopes will slow down the attempted break-ins.
“We keep getting people breaking in,” she says. “It (the lighting) will never stop them, but I am hoping it will slow them down a little. Those windows are expensive.”
Built in 1914 to serve the Catholic families in the area, the stone structure once housed two floors of classrooms and a huge auditorium with a stage occupying the third floor. The building was utilized by the St. Lucie School Board prior to the arrival of the first Sisters of St. Dominic in 1926, when three Dominican nuns from Adrian, Michigan, arrived in Fort Pierce to staff the school.
A brochure from the parish’s 100-year celebration contained words from Sister John Francis: “We soon became aware that we were the first ‘nuns’ ever to come to Fort Pierce. A day or so after we arrived, Sister Sabina and I were walking down the street when a huckster driving his horse and cart spied us, garbed as we were in our white habits and black veils. His shock at the sight of us knew no bounds. He let go the reins, raised his arms to the sky, and exclaimed: ‘Glory be to God, what are them?’”
As the number of Catholic families grew in St. Lucie County, the structure was able to house grades 2-12 until the 1960s. Kindergarten and first-grade classes were conducted in a wooden structure at the north end of the property. In the ‘60s, the church received donations and a plot of land on South 33rd Street from George F. Guettler and his wife, Christine, to build a new elementary school. After the opening of the new grade school, the Orange Avenue campus housed only high school classes, changing its name from St. Anastasia High School to Central Catholic High School and adding buses that helped graduates of St. Joseph’s Catholic School in Stuart and St. Helen’s Catholic School in Vero Beach continue their Catholic school educations beyond eighth grade. The last class to graduate from Central Catholic High School was the Class of 1965. The remaining high school students were moved in the fall of 1965 to the campus of the new John Carroll High School that had been built on the church property along Delaware Avenue west of 33rd Street.
Bridges plans to use the first floor of the building for the classes Lindsay School of the Arts offers to young people and adults. The second floor will be open to the public with art galleries and exhibits, along with a children’s library. The third floor will remain an auditorium which she hopes to rent out to organizations for their productions.
“The outside needs so much work, and then the contractor says he won’t know which floor will be worked on first until he gets in there and looks at things closely,” Bridges says.
There is no elevator in the old building and plans are to add a tower to the building that will provide the elevator service for those who might need it.
“My hope is to put in a public parking lot and a small garden with an amphitheatre,” Bridges says. “I envision a beautiful, small garden and a small amphitheatre, just a small one.”
On Feb. 8, the City of Fort Pierce and the Lindsay School of the Arts are hosting a Meet and Greet on the 3.5-acre campus. There will be a barbecue and demonstrations of some of the school’s lessons, probably an art class, Bridges says. The public is welcome to come and see what the school has to offer.
Currently holding its classes at space it rents in the Crain House at Orange Avenue and Seventh Street, Lindsay School of the Arts has been in existence since 2017. Bridges and her husband, a graduate of Fort Pierce Central High School, both teach at the school, which offers classes in dance, art, music, drama, creative writing and production, which includes graphic design, for ages 8-18. Most of the classes are after-school or in the early evening, September through May. All classes are offered free of charge.
In the summer months, the school staff runs an eight-week, 10-hours-per-day free art camp. This year, Bridges says, the school is projected to have funding for 85 kids. Parents are applying now to have their children included in the summer camp.
Funded mostly by the Children’s Services Council of St. Lucie County, Bridges says the council funds cover almost all of the programming, but not 100 percent of the costs.
“I can accept what I have funding for,” Bridges says. “Currently we have 39 classes. We said we would do 22 classes with 150 kids. We have many more than we projected, so we do a lot of fund-raising. Obviously, the more funding, the more programs I can offer. I have massive waiting lists as we only register students once a year, in August. We have over 300 seats in classes. Students can take only two classes, as we want them to focus. ”
Bridges says that family income level is a factor in the application process, but the school also asks that the children apply and holds an interview process. The staff wants students who want to be in the program and not students coerced by their parents. Offering classes from 3-8 p.m. daily, Monday-Thursday, the school leaves Fridays open for master classes or special events.
A new venture, Art Start, is a special class for children ages 1-4, offered during the day and in the evening. Heather Wells, the school’s creative writing instructor, teaches music and art to the little ones and Bridges teaches dance.
Bridges says her staff is going through trauma-informed care classes. It is a seven-month training. In addition to staff training, she also offers five seminars a year that the students have to attend: mental health awareness, human trafficking, anti-bullying, safe gun control and substance abuse.
“We like students to attend the seminars,” Bridges says. “We also monitor their grades and attendance at school. We are stressing quality and accountability. We want the kids to want to be here, not forced. We have a lot of home-schooled kids and special needs kids.”
Although the work schedule for the old St. Anastasia School has yet to be determined, Bridges is looking forward to moving her students into their new facility.