By Julie Shapiro
The Archdiocese of New York is shaking up a series of Catholic schools in Lower Manhattan, and parents are not happy.
Citing low enrollment, the archdiocese plans to close St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral School on Mott St. and St. James School on St. James Pl. at the end of this school year. The students in those schools would be shuffled around to others in the area, which would allow the overcrowded Transfiguration School to expand into St. James’ building.
“The entire community is upset about this,” said John Quinn, a Democratic district leader who graduated from St. James in 1964.
St. Patrick’s was the first Catholic school in the city when it opened in 1822, but its population has dwindled to just 129 students. The archdiocese hopes to convert the school’s building at 233 Mott St. to condos, according to the Transfiguration priest and Quinn, who both said they heard from school sources. The archdiocese and the school did not confirm the plan.
St. James School opened in 1854 and counts among its alumni Gov. Alfred E. Smith, the first Catholic to run for president on a major party line. Smith, a Lower East Side hero, received no additional education after leaving the school at the age of 14. St. James, which is next to the Al Smith Houses, now has 213 students.
The archdiocese has not given consistent answers on what will happen to the St. Patrick’s and St. James students. Initially, the archdiocese explained the St. James closure as a merger with St. Joseph School a few blocks away on Monroe St.
But when Melissa Ramos, a St. James parent, tried to enroll her fourth-grade daughter in St. Joseph for next fall, St. Joseph staff told her the class was already full and had a waitlist. Ramos said the teachers and staff at St. James are not moving over to St. Joseph, either.
“If you’re not wiling to accommodate all of our children, it is in no such way a merger,” Ramos said. “That’s not a merger — it’s a slaughter.”
The church’s parishes are merging, though.
The archdiocese has suggested that St. Patrick’s students could also attend St. Joseph instead, or one of the other Catholic schools in the area, including Immaculate Conception School on E. 14th St., St. Brigid School on E. 7th St. and Our Lady of Sorrows School on Stanton St.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver wrote a letter this week to Archbishop Timothy Dolan asking for clarification and asking him to reconsider the decision to close the schools. Silver’s office had not received a response as of Wednesday, and a spokesperson for the archdiocese did not return calls for comment this week.
More than 100 parents and children from St. James and St. Patrick’s protested the planned closures at a meeting Tuesday night at the Hamilton-Madison House on Catherine St.
“This is the most nurturing school I’ve ever encountered,” Sherry-Ann Redhead-Garcia, a St. James parent who helped organize the meeting, said beforehand. “They actually care about the kids. It’s a family school.”
Redhead-Garcia said the archdiocese had tentatively agreed to meet with the parents, who were not informed of the plans until Feb. 2. If the meeting does not happen or doesn’t go well, Redhead-Garcia said the parents would rally outside the archdiocese’s offices.
Redhead-Garcia said she did not object to merging with St. Joseph — in fact, she suggested that St. Patrick be included in the merger as well — but she said the merged schools would need space to accommodate all the students.
Staff at St. Joseph, St. James and St. Patrick’s did not comment.
While enrollment is shrinking at many Catholic schools Downtown, the Transfiguration School in Chinatown is bursting with students — about 270 elementary and middle students in eight classrooms on Mott St., and 170 preschoolers and kindergarteners in Confucius Plaza.
The archdiocese’s plan would allow Transfiguration to expand into St. James’ current location this fall, giving Transfiguration its first library and science lab. Transfiguration would keep some classes on Mott St., likely dividing into an upper and lower school in addition to the preschool, said Father Raymond Nobiletti. The school may also be able to accept some of the hundreds of the students on its waiting list.
Asked why Transfiguration is doing so well while some other schools have declining enrollments, Nobiletti credited the school’s staff and philosophy. Nearly all the students are Chinese, and only about 20 percent are Catholic, but parents pick the school because of the strong discipline and moral teachings, Nobiletti said. It’s also hard to argue with the results — this year, 25 of the 31 graduating eighth graders were admitted to the city’s specialized high schools.
Transfiguration, St. James, St. Patrick’s and the other 19th-century Catholic schools that lie scattered below 14th St. opened at a very different time, when being Catholic carried a stigma and even at times a danger, Nobiletti said. Catholic parishes back then served as “ghettos,” insulated places of community that could meet all the congregants’ needs, including the religious education of their children. The enclaves of Irish and Italian immigrants in Lower Manhattan spawned many churches, and consequently many schools, attended by the Catholics who lived nearby.
Today, those Irish and Italian communities have largely dispersed, and families come from farther away to attend the schools, which are more diverse.
“Now both the population and the whole reason for being has changed, so [the number] of schools is not absolutely necessary,” Nobiletti said. “It’s really a lot of schools.”
Still, Nobiletti was sorry that New York would lose the history represented by the schools that are closing.
“It’s a shame,” he said.