Alumnae want to save 'little school that could'

By Peter McDermott

When Mary O'Hara travels to St. Michael Academy, she takes the same route she did as a student -- the Northern Boulevard stop in Woodside to Queens Plaza, then the E train to the 34th Street stop on Manhattan's West Side.

Other things have not changed in the intervening decades, or hadn't until the archdiocese announced that SMA was closing. "It's the one school that has stayed true to its mission," she said.

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Ninety-eight percent of SMA graduates go on to college, giving young women with working-class and immigrant backgrounds, she said, a "shot at the professions." It's noteworthy, though, for at least one other reason. The school of just 200 students, which is a block from Madison Square Garden, is known for its exploits on the basketball court.

The Eagles, who made the school state champion last year, have declined transfer to Cathedral High School on the East Side and intend to be the new girls basketball team for Nazareth in Brooklyn.

The closure plan announced by pastor Fr. Myles Murphy has greatly upset the army of alums that annually helps raise between $100,000 and $120,000 for what O'Hara describes as the "little school that could."

"We weren't consulted," said O'Hara, who taught for 30 years in public schools in Harlem and Williamsburg.

For alumnae, it's indicative of a high-handed approach, which involves off-loading those archdiocesan assets that will fetch the highest prices on the real-estate market. "This used to be Hell's Kitchen when the nuns came over from Ireland," O'Hara said about the block on 33rd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues. "It's now Chelsea and it's trendy."

One 1980s graduate emailed the committee of activists that wants to save SMA saying her research showed "that property values especially anything further west of 8th Avenue [are] red hot."

The building across the street from the school, she said, was sold for $466 million. The Cheyenne Diner, which was on the corner of 9th Avenue for decades, is gone and a building of condos is going up.

O'Hara and her colleagues now believe there was a conscious plan to wind down the school. Witness, they say, the high turnover in key staff positions over the past three to four years.

And yet the school remained popular with little serious outreach. Indeed, it experienced greatly increased interest for the next academic year. O'Hara herself traveled to school fairs with faculty and students as part of the successful effort to recruit girls for September 2010.

The school has traditionally had a remarkably close relationship with its alumnae - not just people like O'Hara who graduated in the 1960s, but also those who attended as far back as the 1940s and others from more recent times.

"I don't know if that's unique," O'Hara said. "But I've a feeling it is."

It's always been important for her that her alma mater continued its mission. Her County Sligo-born father died shortly after she made her First Communion and her mother, who was from County Mayo, wanted her to have a Catholic education. She could only afford St. Michael Academy.

SMA was founded by the Presentation Sisters on the Irish West Side in 1874. When in the 20th century it was forced further west by development, the Pennsylvania Rail Road undertook to build a new school and church at the current location. SMA became an all-girls high school in 1947 and in the 63 years since has remained one of the most affordable private schools in New York City.

"As Catholics and as Christians, we are called to serve and to serve those most in need," O'Hara said.

She contended, however, that there's a gap between the archdiocese's rhetoric on the issue and what it does in practice.

Archbishop Timothy Dolan wrote in an op-ed published in the Daily News and the New York Post on May 9: "The question is not whether we're going to have to close some school, the question is how. We can't do it from the top down. We have got to collaborate with our stakeholders -- our parents, our pastors, our principals, our parishioners, our benefactors and our business leaders."

There was no such collaboration in the case of St. Michael Academy, O'Hara said. She added that its closure contradicted the spirit of Dolan's piece in several other respects. For instance, the archbishop mentioned the need to improve outreach to Latinos. Abruptly discontinuing an institution that caters to working-class immigrant and minority populations is not a good start in that regard, O'Hara argued.

"As a nearly daily communicant, this has really shaken my faith," she said. "It's a betrayal of an entire community - students, parents, alumnae and faculty."

O'Hara and her fellow alumnae are hoping, nonetheless, that a miracle can save the school. "Regis Philbin stepped forward to save his alma mater, Cardinal Hayes H.S.," she said. "That's such a heart-warming and inspiring example of the Catholic and Christian mission at its best."

"There are many other successful Catholic alums," said O'Hara, including the members of another branch of the Dolan clan - the one associated with Madison Square Garden. "We would certainly welcome them as benefactors to SMA."

The St. Michael Academy alumnae have a Facebook page and also an online petition at:

[PHOTO BY PETER MCDERMOTT Mary O'Hara standing outside her alma mater St. Michael Academy on West 33rd Street.]