The Signature Element

A new chapel is the culmination of a 20-year relationship focused on designing and developing a campus to support a faith-based K-8 education.

The chapel on the Mission-inspired campus of St. Junipero Serra Catholic School is the culmination of a long-running relationship among administrators, students and designers that developed and shaped the learning environments and worship spaces on the nine-acre campus.

The school, which serves 1,000 pupils in preschool through grade eight, was founded in a set of modular classrooms in 1995, at the busy intersection of Antonio Parkway and Avenida de las Banderas in the master-planned community of Rancho Santa Margarita, California, in southern Orange County.

The campus was built out in three construction phases over the course of more than two decades, realizing all elements of an early master plan developed by LPA. The third phase, completed in 2018, produced the 6,500-square-foot chapel and a nearby 16,000-square-foot building for STEM education and administration, known as the Student Creation Center.

The 180-seat chapel had long been imagined as a campus focal point. The chapel was designed to bring together different elements of the school’s mission, including prayer services for students and their parents.

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The chapel’s ceiling and front door feature warm Western red cedar.

“The chapel was always slated to be at that corner and to be a signature architectural element for a Catholic school that values spiritual and academic development,” says Wendy Rogers, LPA’s Chief Executive Officer, who worked on the project from the start as a member of LPA’s education practice.

“This was always a special project for me, reflecting our long-standing relationship with the school and the community,” she says.

Named for the 18th century Spanish Franciscan priest and missionary, the school sought with its long-dreamed-of chapel to create a humble, spiritual space that would enhance students’ everyday experience and help them to connect with one another and their faith. Throughout the campus, arcades and trellises pay homage to the Mission Revival architectural style that is common throughout Rancho Santa Margarita.

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The new STEM building provides state-of-the-art SmartLabs.

“The chapel is the most prominent and expressive building on campus, while the other buildings — the education buildings and the athletic buildings — are the supporting phase,” says Jim Wirick, the LPA Studio Director in charge of the project.

The chapel itself is a relatively simple box replete with wooden doors and natural light from clerestory windows. A pitched tile roof and bell tower with three bells on an entry wall help create a ceremonial entrance. Two rustic metal crosses rise from the chapel’s roof line.

Behind the altar is a crucifix suspended dramatically through the opening of a stylized “cloud” — a floating white wall that folds over the altar. The open truss ceiling features warm Western red cedar.

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A think space with writable walls allows students to share and alter ideas.

Below the bell tower, a low wall clad in warm-hued Klondike gold stone stretches toward the entrance. It is topped by a cross-shaped runnel that breaks at the “top” of the cross into three streams of water — representing the Trinity — that pour into a fountain. Set within the wall are the 14 Stations of the Cross, depicting incidents during Jesus Christ’s progress from his condemnation by Pontius Pilate to his crucifixion and burial.

“It’s such a beautiful space,” says Carol Reiss, the lower school principal for transitional kindergarten through fourth grade. “We have student learning expectations, and some of them are attached to the chapel.”

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Students and their parents enter the chapel through heavy wooden doors made of Western red cedar, with slots of clear glass running through them. The doors are topped by a semicircle of glass. The combination of heavy wood and glass gives the entry a modern appearance, while reflecting the campus’ traditional elements.

In many ways, the chapel is an extension of the learning spaces; it borders a path to the new STEM facility. That building’s first floor includes a production studio with video equipment and green screens, a think space with writable walls for sharing and projecting ideas, a performance room to support the school’s music and theater programs and two SmartLabs, state-of-the-art STEM centers designed to encourage exploration, collaboration and problem-solving. The second floor houses the Leadership Center, including a 1,400-square-foot parent hub where administrators and parents can work together.

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From the school’s front gate, students can proceed to the Creation Center or to a garden outside the chapel’s front door. The garden, which includes a statue of Mary, provides spaces where small groups of students may gather or seek respite during the day, perhaps to say a prayer. A “rosary walk” features a stone path embedded with 59 jeweled stones, representing the beads on a rosary.

The chapel’s drought-tolerant landscaping includes olive trees, rosemary and plants that attract butterflies, bees and birds. Lavender, sage, rock roses, grasses and a magnolia tree add color and interest. Spaces behind the STEM building allow classes to gather outdoors.

It’s such a beautiful space. We have student learning expectations, and some of them are attached to the chapel.

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A crucifix is suspended through the opening of a stylized “cloud” that folds over the altar.

“The amount of faith-based details and symbolic elements made the project really special,” says LPA landscape architect Danielle Cleveland.

The combination of indoor and outdoor spaces and the convergence of education and faith are ingrained in every element of the campus. Throughout the extended planning and construction process, each phase required support from the Diocese, administrators, parents and the community.

“This is a story of working side by side with our client for more than 20 years,” Rogers says. “We were part of building consensus to develop a very successful, robust school.”