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Until recently, one of Cathedral High School's big goals for fall was to reverse last year's winless football season and show its rivals not to underestimate the small Catholic school.
Now, as it tries to recover from June tornado damage and mop up after tropical storm Irene, Cathedral's priority is far broader: to maintain its identity as its teachers and students start classes in borrowed quarters, waiting to learn when they can return to their battered campus.
The school was heavily damaged June 1 by the twister that churned through western Massachusetts, leaving Cathedral and the surrounding residential neighborhood in shambles. Then Irene doused the region last weekend and left water dripping through the already-leaky tarps into Cathedral's gym, auditorium and elsewhere.
Damage is still being tallied, but the Springfield Diocese, which runs the school, estimates it will be well into the millions of dollars. The tropical storm probably did not add significantly to it, diocese spokesman Mark Dupont said, "but it certainly didn't make life easier, that's for sure."
Two people were killed in West Springfield and a third person died in Brimfield when the June tornado ripped through the region.
At Cathedral High School that afternoon, classes had dismissed early because of the poor weather. A handful of teachers and students were still in the building, though, and escaped injury by crouching under desks, in closet and behind bleachers.
They emerged to find parts of the roof torn away, windows shattered, walls blown out, their belongings doused - and their school year at an abrupt end, with no certainty about when and where they would reconvene as a student body.
Now, some of those questions are being answered.
About 350 Cathedral students start classes Tuesday in rented space at Memorial School in Wilbraham, and more than 300 children from the adjacent St. Michael's Academy Middle School will move to an elementary school a few miles away.
The diocese owns the property on which Cathedral and St. Michael's sit, so if the buildings cannot be repaired, they will likely be demolished and replaced, Dupont said.
Students, teachers and alumni of the 128-year-old school, which draws from 22 western Massachusetts communities, say they are comforted by their faith and the belief that the Cathedral community is more than a building.
"I've been at Cathedral for three years and I've had a lot of memories walking down those halls," said Tom Delvischio, 17, of Springfield, who is starting his senior year and is co-captain of the Panthers' football team. "It'll be weird to be somewhere else, but I think we'll adjust."
Delvischio and other students lost textbooks, sports uniforms and other equipment, and teachers have not been able to return to retrieve nonessential belongings, either. Most will likely be thrown out after being drenched and sitting in humid conditions for months, providing an ideal breeding ground for mold spores.
It's not just a matter of replacing windows and roofs. The electrical system was damaged, the gym and auditorium are largely wrecked and repairs to the decades-old building will have to comply with more complex modern codes.
Since June, other schools and area colleges have donated athletic field space for practices, new textbooks are ready for use and Cathedral teamed up with nearby Sabis International Charter School and Holyoke Catholic to ensure it would have enough players to field a football team in case enrollment dropped.
About 420 students attended Cathedral at the time of the tornado and, as of last week, it was 353, though school officials expect some rebound as more students register on the first day of classes.
They count themselves lucky compared with some communities who've been hit by tornadoes, though. About 10 days before the western Massachusetts tornado, another twister killed 160 people in Joplin, Mo., including seven students, and destroyed six of its school buildings. Like the Cathedral students, Joplin started the 2011-12 academic year in a combination of other school buildings, portable classrooms and borrowed space.
The Springfield diocese spent much of June and July searching for space before finding the Wilbraham school, since the diocese had sold many of its empty buildings or rented them to the city of Springfield long before the tornado.
"Returning to classes will come as a relief to everyone," said Dupont, the diocese spokesman. "There'll be some return to normalcy as students are back in classrooms and back with their teachers. I think that's going to be a big part of the healing process."
Lori David McMahon, a 1993 Cathedral graduate who is now the school's athletic trainer, said she got chills when she saw the football team start its first practice in their new uniforms, helmets and pads on the borrowed American International College field.
"It's like a fresh start," she said on a recent afternoon at the field. "Everyone's trying to stay positive and remember that Cathedral is more than a building."
This program aired on September 5, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.
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