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South Bronx's St. Luke's to celebrate 100 years

By Peter McDermott

It was once dubbed by the nation's paper of record a "small island of hope" in the South Bronx. Now in better times, as it approaches its 100th anniversary, St. Luke School is still considered something special.

Its supporters plan to celebrate the milestone on Oct. 2, but will also work all out this fall to ensure the future of the school, which serves grades Pre-K through 8.

"We will launch our endowment campaign, the goal of which will be to ensure that no child will ever be turned away because of inability to pay," said Dan Butler, the chair of St. Luke's Education Foundation, Inc.

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"We've had a very nice response. They're coming in every day," said principal Tracey Coleman.

Butler, who graduated from the school in 1953, revealed that more than 180 people have already paid checks for the Oct. 2 celebration but school officials and his committee are hopeful that that figure can be doubled. "I'm cautiously optimistic that it will be a huge success," he said.

"Our school is in the poorest congressional district in the United States. We have some very disadvantaged students, but not academically I'm happy to say," he said. "We're thrilled at some of the top colleges our students go on to."

"Today it's largely Latino, but it plays the same role in the community that it did when the students were Irish immigrants," Coleman said.

Butler, whose mother and father were from Counties Kerry and Kilkenny, agreed: "It's the same kind of immigrant experience," he said, adding that more than 90 percent of the students in his time there had Irish-born parents.

"Many of the students would be the first in their family to go on to high school," Butler said.

In 1908, Fr. John J. Boyle, the founding pastor of the then 11-year-old St. Luke's parish, submitted plans to the Archdiocese for the building of the school. The school was formally opened in September 1910 (at a final cost of $80,000, double Boyle's projected figure).

"By 1945," according the school's website, "staff consisted of 31 teachers: 21 Blauvelt Dominican Sisters [who've been associated with the school for its 100 years], six Sacred Heart Brothers, and four lay teachers.

"At one time, school enrollment reached as high as 1,200; and St. Luke's became the leading parish for vocations to the priesthood, sisterhood and brotherhood in the Archdiocese during the 1940s and 1950s," the website continues.

Coleman said she is "very optimistic" about the future of Catholic education in New York, partly because the school fulfils an even bigger role in inculcating religious values. "Families used to bring their children to church," the principal said.

The vibrant role that St. Luke's in particular plays in the community has its roots in a crisis. The web site refers to the "well-documented devastation of the South Bronx in the 1970s [that] brought intense poverty to the St. Luke's neighborhood."

St. Luke's Principal Tracey Coleman

The New York Times, when profiling Mott Haven in 1991, asked local business people to point to an example of something positive for what was shaping up to being a very depressing article. They sent the journalist to Sr. Pat Howell, St. Luke's principal.

The paper referred to the "small island of hope" where "teachers nurture the self-confidence, the discipline, and the scholastic ability their students need."

Sr. Howell recalled that the Police Department had to create "corridors" to and from the school that weren't impacted by drug activity.

"It has definitely changed for the better," said Sr. Howell about the neighborhood, yet she added that St. Luke's continues to function as a "bastion of hope."

It makes St. Luke's, which is constantly abuzz with activity, "a little different" from other Catholic schools.

Sr. Howell was principal for 19 years through 2005, when she was elected to the Leadership Council of the Dominican Sisters of Blauvelt. (The religious leaders of the parish have generally been known for their longevity. Msgr. Gerald Ryan has been pastor since 1966. He replaced Msgr. Robert Mulcahey, the 5th pastor in St. Luke's history, who began in 1931.)

Meetings, though, bring the nun back to St. Luke's several times a year. "Once it gets in your blood, you can't let it go," Sr. Howell said.

For more information go to http://www.stluke138.org or call 718-585-0380/4918 or write to St. Luke Education Foundation, Inc., c/o St. Luke's School, 608 East 139th St., Bronx, NY 10454.

Dan Butler of the St. Luke's Education Foundation.