Thursday, February 3, 2011

St. Mary Lives In Generations Of Students’ Memories

Jim Kevlin/
Frank Signor, Class of 1939 at St. Mary’s School, is second from the right in the back row of the black-and-white photo.  His daughters, Kittie Townsend, in foreground, and Joanne Braman, upper left, also graduated from St. Mary’s.  Mrs. Townsend now teaches there, and her son, Scott, now 29, at right, and daughter, Rebecca, 26, third from left in second row of photo at left, also graduated from the Oneonta parochial school.  It’s typical of St. Mary’s multi-generational reach.


It’s rare these days – ever, really – to hear parents talk about a school in such glowing terms.
“As soon as you walk through the door, you get a feeling of peace, camaraderie.  There’s goodness there,” said John Kennedy, one of 11 siblings who graduated from St. Mary’s School. “And when the kids come home, they bring it with them.”
His son Johnny, 6, is in first grade, and Maura, 4, Carly, 2, and Stephen, 5 months, will follow in the footsteps of their older  brother.
At St. Mary’s, “peer pressure is the pressure to be good, to learn, to want to be part of something that’s bigger than themselves,” said Kennedy, a five-year employee of Covidien in Hobart.
The other evening at Southside Mall, where St. Mary’s parents were sharing their experiences with the parents of prospective students,  Dawn Schuman, declared, “St. Mary’s is not just a school, it is a joy.  My kids run into school; they cry when there’s a snow day.”
Kitty Townsend, a St. Mary’s graduate who teaches there today – her dad, Frank Signor, graduated in 1939; her children, Scott and Rebecca, in the 1990s – can’t imagine school without Christmas.
Her fourth-graders make a Jesse Tree, which traces the Prophets’ revelations from creation to Jesus,
Please See and an Advent Calendar, which charts the days to the Nativity.
St. Mary’s School is no stranger to an uncertain future.  Thumbing through the school archives the other day, there was a headline from 1969:  “St. Mary’s To Remain Open.”  The story quoted Father John Caldara, then-pastor of St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, as saying “for the time being” the school was safe.
“The time being” turned out to be 42 years – two generations – during which the school left its 1924 building at Elm and Walnut for a campus on Oneonta’s east end.
In 1969, the school had 200 students.  Today, it has 50, Grades 1-6, and given Diocese of Albany guidelines that a healthy school should have 12 students per grade, questions have been raised anew about St. Mary’s future.
The questions, however, have brought forth an outpouring of affection.  Parents rallied Wednesday, Jan. 26, saying they would  raise $40,000 to keep the school open.
As it turns out, money alone is not a factor, according to Principal Patricia Bliss, who said the school is sufficiently endowed to cover whatever amount of tuition that, subject to need, is necessary to bring enrollment up to the desired 70.
More of a challenge is the relatively good quality of local public schools, and distance – public schools are only required to bus students in from a 15-mile radius, she said.
“We need children,” said Bliss, a Cooperstown native who moved back to the principalship after two decades teaching at Catholic schools in New Jersey.  “Then we can work on the other things.”
The economy’s a factor, too: Since the Great Recession arrived, students from Sidney and other towns at the outer end of St. Mary’s service limit have dropped away. 
Generally, there are fewer school-age children; Andes, it turns out, has only one kindergartner this year.  And the demographics have changed.  Kitty Townsend remembers her generation of Pondolfinos:  13 children.
Still, Bliss said, St. Mary’s pupils are taught a state-approved curriculum and are at the top end of state tests.  Students don’t have to be Catholic, but of those who are, “The values the parents are teaching at home – faith-based values – are being taught in school:  respect, caring, love of God, love of one another.”
St. Mary’s was built at the end of the wave of Catholic school construction. 
The first Catholic school was also a St. Mary’s, opened in Philadelphia in 1782.  The Bill of Rights, guaranteeing freedom of religion, resulted in the spread of parochial schools, as did the flood of Catholic immigrants that followed Ireland’s Great Famine, beginning in 1845.
The Sisters of Mercy – they would teach in Oneonta decades later – arrived from Ireland in 1843.
Parochial schools were intended to preserve the Old Country religion, but also as a bulwark against the anti-immigrant sentiment of the Know-Nothing Party and, later, the Ku Klux Klan.  (As it happens, the Aug. 16, 1923, headline in the Oneonta Herald, “New Parochial School,” was juxtaposed with another, “Purposes of the Klan,” reporting “the largest throng ever wedged into the Knights of Pythias hall on Main Street” to hear the Rev. N.V. Cossaboom promote that secret society.)
By 2000 – the National Catholic Education Association formed that year – there were 3,500 Catholic schools in the U.S.  Twenty years later, just before St. Mary’s rose, there were 6,500 with 1.75 million students.  Enrollment peaked at 4.5 million in the 1960s.
Whatever happens to St. Mary’s, there exists a living legacy of discipline, caring and education in Otsego and Delaware counties, judging from interview with students past and parents present in recent days.
“The curriculum standards were very high,” recalled Alex Shields, Class of 1956, the former county representative from Richfield Springs who was raised “under the viaduct” in the City of the Hills.  “We had very bright kids.”
His dad Andrew worked in the feed mill on Market Street and mom Ina was a waitress, so there was little money to spare for the shirts, ties and slacks he and two of his three brothers needed to attend St. Mary’s – the girls wore green jumpers and white blouses – but his parents were committed to getting them a parochial education.
St. Mary’s wasn’t fancy.  The playground was narrow and asphalt-covered.  The kids exercised by their desks.  And they brought bagged lunches.  Treats were rare – Alex remembers the thrill at seeing “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” starring Ingrid Bergman and Bing Crosby, in the auditorium. 
All the alums talk about a system of rewards based on service.  One prized task for Shields was to distribute milk to the other classrooms; another, to clean the blackboards.  Kitty Townsend remembers the honor of being chosen to take a note across the street to the convent.
“It was a job, but it was a privilege,” Alex remembered.
Both Shields and Signor yearned to be altar boys, and studied the Latin necessary to do the task.  Every Christmas, the choir boys and altar boys were given an apple and an orange after mass.  “We thought we were big deals,” Signor said.
No one remembers any trouble adjusting to the academic demands of Oneonta High School, even in the days of the formidable principal, Charles Belden – yes, he would start each assembly with a Bible verse – and his deputy, Clifford McVinney.
And the teachers ... oh, my.
Sister Mary LaSalle, Alex’s principal, Sister Mary Raymond, Sister Robert Ann, Sister Francis, Mother Veronica, assigned to St. Mary’s after 15 years directing the order’s Mother House in Albany, took a particular interest in young Alex. 
“She was very, very smart:  and very, very strong-willed,” he said.  “I was extremely rebellious.  But she saw something in me that had some potential.”
She encouraged him to take college prep courses, but family members urged him to learn a trade.  It was only many years later that Shields obtained his bachelor’s from SUNY Oneonta, going on to a career in government and, later, elective office.
Curiously, John Kennedy tells a similar story from decades later, of Mrs. Nancy Weils, his math and social studies teacher.
“She expected from you what she knew your potential was,” he said, as baby Stephen bounced on mom Christy’s knee and Johnny assembled a circuit board he intended to use to build an FM speaker.  Maura and Carly squealed with delight at a favorite movie on TV in the next room.
“I learned things and I did things in that class that I never thought I would accomplish.”

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