A huge effort is now underway to have the archdiocese change course and keep the beloved school alive.
As if parents don’t have it tough enough with the havoc COVID-19 has wreaked on their children’s education, the Archdiocese of New York last week announced the sudden closing of 20 Catholic schools, but supporters of one shuttered school, St. Paul’s just off McLean Avenue in Yonkers, are fighting back at the shock development for which they had no advance warning.
St. Paul’s, an elementary school that serves children from grades pre-k to eighth, has been a beacon for many local Irish and Irish American families since its founding in 1947w. Furious parents, stunned at the timing of the closure, only weeks before a complicated new school year that will have to comply with new COVID-19 safety protocols, are mounting a massive effort with thousands of alumni and supporters on board to reach a compromise with the archdiocese and save the school.
A Change.org petition urging the archdiocese to reverse course accumulated more than 3,000 signatures as of Tuesday afternoon, an impromptu rally last Saturday on McLean Avenue drew dozens of irate parents and students, and another, larger public event was scheduled for Tuesday evening at the school.
The anger and hurt that the closure has caused is growing by the day say parents and supporters, who had no idea that St. Paul’s was on the archdiocese chopping block.
“It was definitely a shock and I didn’t believe it at first. You hear it happen to other schools, but never imagine it would be your school,” Siobhán Nevin, 23, a 2011 graduate of St. Paul’s and creator of the Save St. Paul’s Facebook page, told the Irish Voice.
“St. Paul's is a school with good enrollment and a community that is always ready to fundraise. We want a chance to do what we do best and keep our school open. The school has always been told they're never in the red, but now suddenly it's so bad it has to be closed?”
The announcement by Cardinal Timothy Dolan last Thursday came out of the blue, parents say. The archdiocese is blaming the financial fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, and lack of enrollment, for the closures.
"Children are always the most innocent victims of any crisis, and this COVID-19 pandemic is no exception,” Dolan said in a statement. "Too many have lost parents and grandparents to this insidious virus, and now thousands will not see their beloved school again. I've kept a hopeful eye on our schools throughout this saga and my prayers are with all of the children and their families who will be affected by this sad news.
“Given the devastation of this pandemic, I'm grateful more schools didn't meet this fate, and that Catholic schools nearby are ready to welcome all the kids."
The archdiocese superintendent of schools, Michael Deegan, added, "The reality of these schools being lost is painful, and it was only accepted reluctantly after a detailed study was conducted of their respective fiscal standing in the wake of the coronavirus public health crisis. If more assistance is not forthcoming in the longed-for HEROES Act now before Congress, I am afraid even more might close. This is a very sad day for everyone in the extended Catholic school community. I send my love and prayers to the families, teachers, principals, and staff of the affected schools."
St. Paul’s supporters, however, are looking for much more than thoughts and prayers – they want an immediate meeting with archdiocese officials and a proper chance to save their school. They have flooded social media and the in-boxes of the archdiocese with their pleas, and say that time is of the essence as parents scramble to make plans for their children’s education in September.
“We are a working-class Irish neighborhood and we take care of each other. We want an opportunity to save the school that we all love so much,” Pat King, father of twins due to enter seventh grade, told the Irish Voice.
Marty and Tommy, the 11-year-old boys he and his wife Christine are raising, are upset at the sudden turn of events and don’t want to leave their school. “They’re a little older and at the age where they’re getting ready for high school, competing for scholarships,” King, son of a father from County Kerry, says.
“And how exactly are parents expected to feel safe sending our kids into new schools that will now be even more crowded because of the St. Paul’s closure? With everything going on with COVID-19, did the archdiocese even think about that?”
The Archdiocese of New York received more than $28 million in funding from the federal Paycheck Protection Program to ease the financial burden brought on by COVID-19, with “15 loans, totaling at least $28 million just for its top executive offices. At least $1 million reportedly went to St. Patrick’s Cathedral,” CBS New York reported.
Keeping the shuttered schools alive would be a better use of the funding, many parents argue. “It’s what the archdiocese should do, and not leave us parents and kids in the lurch,” King says.
One of the leaders of the Save St. Paul’s movement, Shane Larkin, says that the school’s teachers were also upended by the closure. A meeting that the Federation of Catholic Teachers union had with the archdiocese just two days before the closures were announced gave no indication that anything was amiss.
“At this meeting, there was no mention of the closure of 20 schools nor any mention that teachers would be laid off. At this meeting, according to the same union, the associate superintendent of teacher personnel for the Archdiocese, Frank Viteritti, made it clear that the archdiocese had no idea what the enrollment for any school in the archdiocese was going to be in September,” Larkin wrote on the Save St. Paul’s Facebook page.
“According to the union, the archdiocese pulled the rug out from under everyone!”
Larkin also pointed out that “with each passing minute, more and more students will defect to other schools, reducing St. Paul’s chances of staying open.”
Father Brendan Fitzgerald, the Pastor of St. Barnabas in nearby Woodlawn, told the Irish Voice that the parish school is accommodating as many displaced St. Paul’s children as possible.
“The seventh-grade class has all come over and we will keep them all together in the same class. So it won’t be so unsettling for them,” Fitzgerald said.
“I’ve been in a situation upstate where our school closed. The main concern when we got over the disappointment was to have the kids settled with as little disruption as possible.”
Heartbroken parents have every intention of fighting for a school that has deep roots in the community.
“It's a very tight-knit school. I consider it to be more like a family. Although I graduated many years ago I know I can still go to the principal, Mrs. Mallardi, and the faculty if I needed anything,” said Nevin, whose father is a native of Co. Roscommon. She has three siblings who also graduated from St. Paul’s.
“There is nothing better than the Catholic education. Many parents, like my own, do all they can to make sure their children can attend these schools,” Nevin, now a student at Fordham University, pointed out.
King fully agrees. “The young people who attend St. Paul’s get the very best education in everything,” he says.
“We have Irish Americans, African Americans, Italian Americans, Albanian Americans… a mix of everyone. And we all get along wonderfully. The children leave St. Paul’s with compassion and caring and don’t see color. To take away this kind of education from them, to have this school lost forever…it’s just too much for us to contemplate.”