The battle is on for St. Paul's

St. Paul the Apostle School in Yonkers is on a list of schools to be closed or merged issued by the Archdiocese of New York.

By Frank Brady

Two weeks ago the Archdiocese of New York announced that it was closing twenty schools, seven in the lower Hudson Valley with two of them in Yonkers, namely St. Ann’s and St. Paul the Apostle.

It stated that mass unemployment and continuing health concerns caused many families to struggle to pay tuition and many of these were unable to register for the fall. According to Michael J. Deegan, the Superintendent of Archdiocese schools, “the reality of these schools being closed 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 crisis."

Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter

Sign up today to get daily, up-to-date news and views from Irish America.

The statement further notes that the closings are designed to improve the overall fiscal stability and, strengthen the vitality of the New York Catholics schools for decades to come. However, the harsh reality is that over 2500 students will be displaced from their schools and about 350 dedicated staff dismissed from their jobs.

Well in the interest of full disclosure I have been associated with St. Paul the Apostle for over three decades. In a way you could say it was a life-changing event that propelled my family into the parish in South Yonkers.

One evening in the late eighties, my son and I had a terrifying experience as we walked our dog in the Parkchester section of the Bronx. Low level drug-dealing was the norm, but on this particular evening it escalated into a turf war between rival groups as bullets flew, forcing us to dive between parked cars for cover.

My son thought it was exciting, but my wife was adamant that we had better get to a safer environment as soon as possible.

Well, the next evening, when I dropped her off at work, she said take a drive to Yonkers to see what’s available, stipulations being that we would still be close to the Bronx, as we both worked there, and close to a good school.

After a few evenings of house-hunting a home was located that met the main criteria in terms of safety, budget, location and a clinching remark from the realtor that helped copper-fasten our decision, when she said, “this is St. Paul’s parish with a wonderful pastor Fr. John Gallagher, and a great school, very well run by a young dynamic principal, Mrs. Mallardi.

Demographers would call our move white flight, but the reality was that we were fleeing from drugs and bullets. Once we moved, the assessments of pastor and principal were on the money. Shortly afterwards I met the pastor while jogging at Lincoln High School,

He had been a noted athlete in his day. He prevailed on me to be a lector and later coopted me to the parish council. The children were registered in St. Paul’s and I found the school even better than the realtor had suggested.

There was a rigorous and expansive content-laden curriculum, a very dedicated staff, a great array of extra-curricular activities and all the main-stream sports were coached by a very dedicated group of volunteers.

Indeed I had the privilege of coaching track during much of the nineties. I must admit that I visited the principal’s office on occasion; truth be told I was summoned, eager to defend the indefensible. However, on mature reflection, all at St. Paul’s were guided by what was best for their young charges, though you might have a contrary opinion in a heated moment.

Michael Deegan, the superintendent, in one of his summations of the closings, noted: “they had great test scores, wonderful programs, committed parents, dedicated teachers and principals."

After reading that I said he’s definitely talking about St. Paul’s. Those statements were definitely validated by St. Paul’s students, Natalie Naughton, Ellie O’Connell, and recent graduate J.P. Naughton as they read thoughtfully crafted and articulately delivered testimonials regarding their educational experiences at St. Paul’s.

John Mitchell, one of the organizers of the movement to save St. Paul’s school, and a father of four young boys, said it very well.

“It’s not just a school, it’s a family."

I couldn’t agree more as I noticed the enduring bonds formed, later exemplified by graduates participating in classmates’ wedding parties, acting as godparents, and of course getting a few foursomes together for the golf outings.

To say that the stakeholders in St. Paul’s are upset at the closing would be a great understatement. They are furious. The decision to close the school was like a thunderbolt out of the blue.

There wasn’t any indication that the school was in jeopardy. It was even reported that just a few days before the bombshell was dropped many of the staff participated in a conference about the best way to function when the school would reopen.

Where was the transparency here? There was no discussion, dialogue or debate, just an imperial-like diktat to close the school. I guarantee you that any of the 7th or 8th graders in Mrs. Larkin’s or Ms. Kruse’s classes could give some of the decision makers in the Archdiocese a badly-needed tutorial in the requisite steps of decision-making.

According to Shane Larkin, a current parent, a former student and Regis scholarship winner, and John Mitchell, the main organizers of the campaign, this is the crux of the problem.

Granted, registration was down. Bun this is an aberration, the number an outlier, the result of a totally unprecedented pandemic. St. Paul’s were not given any leeway to address this issue or the possibility of developing an action plan that would work until the crisis ended.

Then the Archdiocese totally ignored requests for a meeting or any attempt seeking clarification or justification about the closure. According to reliable reports, St. Paul’s had never been red-flagged, warned or notified about imminent danger of closing.

Their numbers have been consistently solid. You’d be forgiven if you thought this was a very callous and cold-hearted decision as time is extremely limited for rescuing the school. Even the offer of $1000 to attend another school seems like giving the rug another pull from under St. Paul’s. I couldn’t help but think of the phrase “amicable persuasions” from Irish history, a ploy that was used to vote the Irish Parliament out of existence so as to implement the infamous Act of Union.

They say you can’t fight City Hall. The Archdiocese may also be a formidable and perhaps recalcitrant opponent.

But as Mark Twain stated, it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog that counts.

This match-up has all the hallmarks of a David and Goliath encounter, but then Malcolm Gladwell, in his best-seller about these biblical characters, claims the underdog can win using the proper tools and context.

I’m sure the St. Paul’s folks will be sharpening their tools, but I do know that the size of fight in the ever-growing group will be fearsome. Mrs. Mallardi was often heard to say that St. Paul’s school was the best kept secret in Yonkers. Well the disgust about its closure is definitely no secret.

Last Tuesday, July 14, about 350 showed up for a rally to save the school, which included not just people affected by the closing, but also politicians, past graduates merchants, local residents, civic and sports leaders.

Obviously closing a school has a negative effect on the community, an issue which has been adroitly addressed by Harvard academician Nathan Glazer. There is also a correlation between closing the school and the future of its related church. Schools are still the best evangelization tools that churches have.

It may be a bit unusual to see politicians involved in Catholic school affairs. Christine King, the MC for the rally, but also one of the organizers and mother of twin boys at St. Paul’s, introduced Westchester Legislator David Tubiolo and Assemblyman Nader Sayegh, who not only vouched unequivocal support for St. Paul’s, but also questioned why the Archdiocese was not using federal money to save schools and jobs.

Shelley Mayer, New York State Senator, has since weighed in with her support. JoAnn Perotta, an official from the Federation of Catholics Teachers, reiterated her astonishment as to how summarily St. Paul’s was closed, given that plans were in progress for reopening.

When the rally ended, St. Paul’s supporters went on a crusade down McLean Avenue. Incidentally “the crusaders” is the moniker for the school’s teams.

Anyway, let’s hope that Cardinal Dolan and Superintendent Deegan will have a Pauline-like moment just like the school’s name-sake had on the road to Damascus.

Then known as Saul, he was struck down by a flash of light, and wondered why he was being persecuted. Well, the folks at St. Paul’s may feel in their own way that they are being persecuted. All they’re asking is that the decision be rescinded and that they be given a fair opportunity to address the issues.

It would be a travesty if the educational beacon on Monsignor John Gallagher’s street was allowed to perish over a paltry number.

There are much more important things in life than the bottom line. At this stage the cardinal should be well apprised of the ardor and passion that the St. Paul’s family and community have for their school.

John Mitchell delivered a lengthy epistle to him, a petition has already over 4000 signatures. And there was a crusade to St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Sunday.

Well at least the children went home happy after the rally on Tuesday, because Seamus and Caitriona Clarke, proprietors of JP Clarke’s, treated them to ice cream at Carvel.

Long may St. Paul the Apostle school continue to flourish, as it has for the last 71 years.