OLM school, former student share 90 years of history in the making
‘Oh, how precious time is!
Blessed are those who know how to make good use of it’
— Padre Pio,
aka Saint Pio of Pietrelcina
The sign over the door makes it seem like a quaint business office, but when E.J. “Almo” Lorenzi opens the door, a lifetime of Merced history awaits discovery.
Lorenzi calls the reception space “The Museum” — a corner portion of the old Our Lady Of Mercy School that stands gracefully along West 26th Street, between Canal and M streets, in the downtown district.
Inside, there are more than 200 old photographs, plaques and artifacts beautifully framed on the walls, displayed on tables, and even more stored away for future viewing. They tell the story of the building itself, the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary who taught there, and the native Mercedian who saved the memory of it all from ruin.
“I thought this was going to be my last grand deal,” Lorenzi says with a mischievous smile, “but there’s more we’re going to do.”
It’s a special time for Lorenzi, a longtime local businessman and community advocate who has a penchant for acquiring notable properties in town and preserving them for generations to come.
He turns 90 this coming Tuesday, May 18. And his birthday closely follows the 90th anniversary of the building of his beloved school.
Everyone is invited to the Drive-By Parade in honor of OLM School and Lorenzi on May 15, from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. It will be held at the school site, 545 W. 26th Street. Use Canal Street to enter the parking lot behind the Spanish Mission-style building. The parade route goes through the parking lot westbound toward M Street and Applegate Park.
Incredibly, the two histories of the school and the student have been intertwined ever since Lorenzi was born just a block away at the old Mercy Hospital location at Bear Creek and M. His parents, Joesph and Rita Lorenzi, must have gazed upon the newly built OLM School as they exited the hospital with their bundle of joy in 1931.
Five years later, a frightened little Almo walked sheepishly up the school’s steps in his bib overalls.
“I came here and all I could see were all the nuns in their black habits … and I was petrified,” Lorenzi says. “I was suppose to start school when I was 6, but my father had a restaurant, and so my parents thought it would be better for me to be away from the business and at school during the day. So my mother and father asked the sisters if they would take me in. And it turned out, I was so lucky, because the first grade teacher was the kindest woman in the world. She was so kind and beautiful that I was able to get over my fear of the nuns, and I would later become devoted to the Immaculate Heart Sisters for the rest of my life.”
Lorenzi ended up attending the OLM elementary school for nine years. His future wife, Evelyn Weres, was also a student at the time. “She used to ride her bicycle all the way from Gerard Avenue every morning to get to school,” he remembers with a smile.
Today, Lorenzi says, it’s time to take action and preserve the landmark school site for its historical value.
To understand the importance of this effort, one must look back at several different eras in Merced.
In 1930, the dedication of Our Lady of Mercy School led by Bishop John Bernard MacGinley was seen as a significant step forward for the local Catholic community. The diocese paid $30,000 to have it constructed with four classrooms, office space and the ability to accommodate 160 students. It was located next to the old Chamberlain home that had served as a makeshift school and convent. OLM Church was already established in 1918 on 21st Street.
At the time, the OLM school building was the only one of its kind in the Central Valley. The architecture was designed after the rustic quality of the missions on the California coast. This is particularly evident in the uneven brickwork, the Spanish-style, multi-colored tiled roof, and a long veranda that runs the entire length of the building. The roof tiles, interestingly, are works of the noted California Pottery Company of Merced.
“I don’t know who the contractor was that did the building,” Lorenzi says, “but what a job he did. You can feel it even today. You don’t feel the heat outside or anything else.”
To the right of the main arch entrance, a cornerstone is located with the letters “AMDG.” It stands for the Latin motto: “Ad maiorem Dei gloria” or “For the greater glory of God.” The origin of the phrase is attributed to the founder of the Jesuits — Saint Ignatius of Loyola — and that leads Lorenzi and others to believe there was direct Jesuit influence in the building of the OLM school.
The Catholic community continued to grow with the purchase of churches in south Merced and Planada in the late 1940s. Some classrooms and a cafeteria were added to OLM School in 1949, and that same year the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena came to town from Kenosha, Wisconsin. They purchased an existing 54-bed facility named Mercy Hospital near M Street and Bear Creek. It was the dream of Sister M. Stanislaus, who became the hospital’s administrator. She would go on to lead the effort for a new $1.6 million hospital that opened on the same site in 1960.
By this point, Lorenzi had already went through nine years at OLM School, graduating in 1945. He graduated from Merced High in 1949, and was on his way to a long career as a partner in the Lorenzi-Masasso Insurance Agency. It would become one of the largest independent agencies of its kind in the Central Valley.
Big changes were also in store for OLM School during the 1950s as administrators found funding to purchase land along East 27th Street for a bigger campus. The new site was opened in 1956, and it’s still in operation today as an elementary school.
In 1958, the deed to the old school would fall into the hands of the contractors — Cullen & Martinelli — who built the new campus. Interestingly, Lorenzi says, those guys offered up his “first chance” to buy the old school building because they expressed a desire to sell the property. Lorenzi was extremely interested in the old OLM site, even back then, 63 years ago.
The only problem was that Lorenzi had just started his own business in 1955, three years prior to the offer, and he simply didn’t have the funds available.
Years passed, and with business success, Lorenzi found himself serving on various boards and committees in town. And it so happened that he became a founding member of the Mercy Hospital advisory board. Meanwhile, the original OLM site, as a commercial property, had been folded into an adjoining medical office center that supported operations at the hospital. In the mid-1980s, a plan was brought up to tear down the old school building and make room for new facilities and additional parking. As a board member, Lorenzi announced to his colleagues that he was going to respectively oppose the project.
As far as Lorenzi was concerned, the old OLM was a historic building that couldn’t be touched. He later sought the help of OLM grad Catherine Fluetsch, and the two made their case in front of the Merced City Council.
“It would have been a terrible thing to tear it down,” Lorenzi said. “It’s like all the historical buildings at San Juan Bautista, Carmel and Santa Barbara.”
The City Council agreed with the view, and the old OLM remained untouched, save for a few medical tenants.
In the decades since, the hospital joined various health care partnerships, and in 2010, a state-of-the art, $262-million “Mercy Medical Center” was opened way out on G Street in northern Merced. Meanwhile, Lorenzi formed Lorenzi Land Investments, L.P. with his children, and remained focused on protecting historic local properties, including the restoration and repurposing of the Hinds Hospice and Wilbur McMurry buildings on Main Street, and the Simonson home on M Street.
After Mercy Medical Center moved its main operation north, Lorenzi asked CEO David Dunham to give him notice if they ever decided to sell the old school.
A few years later, in 2013, Lorenzi got the call. Dunham told him the big hospital board in San Francisco said the property could be Lorenzi’s for the right price.
But there was a catch.
The hospital owned the entire block bordered by M, 26th, 27th and Canal streets. Lorenzi was told that if he wanted the school, he would have to buy the entire 3 1/2 acre site, along with 20,000 square feet of old office buildings. The school itself is only around 4,250 square feet.
“My God,” Lorenzi remembers saying at the time, “I’m in my 80s. What am I going to do with all those buildings? … All I want is the school.”
Nevertheless, Lorenzi discussed the deal with this family and they decided to move forward with everything.
“The people with Mercy and Dignity Health were so kind and so good to me because of our relationship we have had for many years, and me being on the Advisory Board and helping to create the Mercy Foundation. … We went into negotiations, and they gave us a deal we couldn’t turn down.”
The restoration process started right away with the Lorenzi family forming a new Limited Liability Company (LLC) under the corporate name AJEM. The initials stand for Almo Joseph Evelyn Mary. Lorenzi’s children chose the name to honor their father and mother.
They added wrought iron gates for the main entrance of the old school with the letters OLM on one side, and on the other side, IHM, standing for Immaculate Heart of Mary, the namesake for the order of nuns who originally taught there.
“They were great teachers, the best part of my education,” he says. “After all this time, I still thank them.”
Lorenzi says he hopes the first our Lady of Mercy School will always be protected and although it’s no easy task that requires hurdles at the city, state, and possibly federal levels, his family is working to secure the site forever with a historic landmark designation.
“I just don’t want to die, and then after 40 or 50 years, it comes up again that somebody wants to tear this down and erect a 10-story development. I don’t want this building to ever be sold. We don’t want to use it for profit. It’s dedicated to the Blessed Mother and the sisters.”
Coming soon, Lorenzi plans to unveil a special “grotto” area at the southeast corner of the school with a statue of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. A plaque will dedicate the site to the IHM Sisters, along with the Dominican Sisters who also helped maintained the site for Mercy Hospital after it became a commercial property.
‘Humility and charity are the master chords that all other virtues depend upon. The one is the lowest, the other the highest. The preservation of the entire edifice depends on the foundation and the roof. If the heart keeps itself directed in the exercise of these, no difficulty will be encountered in the others. These are the mothers of virtue, the others follow them as the chicks do their mother.’
One final note that’s worth mentioning on Lorenzi’s 90th birthday.
The man never retired.
He still has an office where he goes to regularly. He still takes calls about properties and negotiates with commercial tenants. And he still works to make Merced a better place along with other movers and shakers in the community, prominent businessmen, elected leaders, and government administration heads such as the City Manager and the County CEO.
He likes to talk business, community strategies and building blueprints.
Lorenzi once told this reporter that he never wanted to be one of those over-the-hill guys who had made a fortune in their prime and spent the rest of their days sipping martinis at the Country Club.
He’d rather look for the next structure to invest in, or the next great community project to support.
And it’s always nice to sit in “The Museum” and share about the good old days and remember the friends that helped shaped this community in their own ways.
When asked about his fondest memory, Lorenzi recalled off the top of his head: “It was when I was a kid. I was about 10 or 11, and I was able to land my first job. It was at the Strand Shoe Shop, right next door to the Strand Theater. I shined shoes on a platform. It was one of the happiest times I had as a kid.”
If the name “Strand” doesn’t ring a bell, it was the name of the theater at Main and N streets that is today known as “The Mainzer.”
Happy Birthday Almo!