Volume 17, Number 42 | March 11 - 17, 2005

Sister Deborah adapts to a changing Lower East Side

Downtown Express photo by Elisabeth Robert

Sister Deborah Lopez, principal and graduate of St. Joseph’s School.

By Zachary Roy

When Sister Deborah Lopez arrived at St. Joseph’s School four years ago to become the new principal, many residents of school’s Chinatown neighborhood probably thought she was a newcomer. After all, the last time she had lived there, it was not even called Chinatown.

But for Lopez, 57, her arrival at the Monroe St., coeducational Catholic grade school in the infamous September of 2001 was the homecoming she had desired for two decades.

Her family’s roots reach deep into the past of a Lower East Side neighborhood that has been defined by change. They were one of thousands of European families to immigrate to the area long the East River in Lower Manhattan during the 19th century. Her maternal grandparents came over from Italy, and her father from Spain.

With the exception of a brief move to Brooklyn in the late 1940’s, when construction of the Al Smith housing project forced many families to move temporarily, Lopez spent her whole childhood in the St. Joseph’s neighborhood.

There were few places that Lopez loved more than St. Joseph’s. “The school was a big part of my life,” she said. “I was a student who enjoyed coming to school. I had a lot of friends. I came after school and on weekends and helped out. It wasn’t just some place I went because I had to, so my memories were always very positive ones.”

Education has always been an integral part of Lopez’s life. After graduating from Albertus Magnus College in New Haven, Connecticut, her Catholic faith and her fond memories of her youth, led to join the Apostles of Sacred Heart of Jesus, the order than runs St. Joseph’s. But her scholarly pursuits did not end there. Lopez, an avid reader to this day, went on to get graduate degrees in English and administration from Fordham University, and a degree in spirituality from a pontifical university in Rome.

She served as St. Joseph’s principal for one year upon her return from Rome in 1980, before a 21-year period during which her order assigned her to different teaching and administration positions at schools in St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Connecticut.

Though her life was devoted to her students at these schools and to her religious obligations, St. Joseph’s never strayed far from her thoughts. “We don’t pick where we go, we’re assigned,” Lopez said, explaining the process by which her order decides where to assign its sisters. “Let’s put it this way, it was always my hope that I would be able to come back [to St. Joseph’s].”

During her long absence, she was only able to return to New York for brief visits once every year or two, but it was often enough to notice that changes were occurring in the neighborhood. Chinatown was expanding to the north and east, across its former border at Chatham Square and into the St. Joseph’s parish.

According to Lopez, the departure of the European-American families was a process of “natural attrition.” She says that some people made enough money to move to more expensive areas of the city, while others followed their children to New Jersey, Long Island or Staten Island.

By the time she returned for the 2001 school year, the streets of her youth were barely recognizable. Today few children play after school on the Al Smith playground as she did growing up. Gone are the Italian bakeries where she loved to get breads and pastries. Gone too is the seafood shop where she used to watch the owner prepare fish. But Lopez has adapted. Her new favorite place to eat is Kwok’s Food King, a Chinese restaurant run by a family whose children attend St. Joseph’s.

Not everything has changed. The school building, for example, has stood largely unchanged, for 80 years. “Many of the stores were a butcher, a vegetable place, an outdoor market, or a thrift shop,” Lopez said. “That’s exactly what they are today. It’s just that the people who own them are a different nationality. Instead of the vendors being Italian or Greek or Jewish, they are now Chinese.”

“I think it’s a fact of life in a city like New York that something like that happens,” she said, and while she does not know anyone who is angered by the changes, she said, “I would imagine it’s hard on the older people, because miss the places that they knew as children.”

Unlike some of the surrounding schools, St. Joseph’s has never had many commuter students, so its population has always mirrored the neighborhood’s ethnic and religious makeup. In the 1950s, that meant a largely Italian and Catholic student body. Today, 70 percent of the school’s 175 pre-kindergarten through eighth grade students are Asian, and many of them do not speak English when they first arrive. The remaining students are Hispanic, with about 20 percent African-American and Caucasian.

Regardless of demographics, Lopez says that the school’s mission has always included in its goals, “the enculturation of our students into American life.”

“The sisters here have always had the approach of ‘every student has his or her own needs and his or her own background,’” explained Peter DeVincenzo, who is in his second year working on development projects at St. Joseph’s, though a fellowship from the New York City Archdiocese. “Regardless of who’s been in this neighborhood, this has never been a very affluent area, so education has always been a way to pull them up.”

The teaching of Gospel values, is another part of the school’s mission that could pose problems at a school whose Catholic population has declined from nearly every student a few decades ago to about 30 percent today. When Lopez was a student, there was only one lay teacher. Today, which about half as many students, there are only two are nuns on the 22-person staff. But she says there is a universalism at the heart of Church teachings that is appealing to non-Christian students and parents.

“We’re founded and based on traditional Gospel values,” she said. “Our people, even though many of them are not Christian, appreciate that because, especially in Chinese traditions, the values of Christianity are very similar to the values that our people want for their children.”

While parents are generally pleased that their children are learning about American culture and Christianity, they do not want their children to lose sight of their heritage, so many of them send their children to special classes after school where they learn Chinese language and culture.

One of Lopez’s major accomplishments during her four years as principal has been to strengthen the school’s English as a Second Language program. Initially the E.S.L. program was merely an add-on to the existing curriculum, but as the number of students with little or no English increased, she realized that her teachers must integrate the program into every lesson.

The program is especially intense for non-English speaking fifth through eighth graders, as many of them have immigrated directly from China with their families. “When they’re younger, most of the children can really learn a lot more English,” said Christine Fish, a St. Joseph’s teacher whose class created dragon sculptures last month in celebration of the Chinese New Year. “But when they don’t come here until they’re older, it’s a little bit harder, so they are in a more intense program.”

Aside from making sure the curriculum is catered to the needs of a new and different generation of St. Joseph’s students, Lopez strives to maintain personal relationships with the children and their families. She personally writes individual notes of encouragement on every major test that each student takes. When needed, she even fills in as a substitute teacher. She says that by keeping such close tabs on each student’s educational growth, she is able not only see where she and her faculty need to improve their instruction, but she also allows gets to know each child personally.

“I think the kids have the sense in this school that they are very cared for by everyone,” she said. “As the person who sets the tone for that, I have a lot of influence over how that’s structured. And for me, that’s very rewarding.”

In an editorial published on Catholic New York Online last year, New York Cardinal Edward Egan called Lopez “a great woman of the Church,” praising her for the long hours she routinely works to give her students extra help with their work.

“I barely knew my principal’s name in grammar school,” DeVincenzo said. “It’s really a private school, but it’s kind of a family too. It’s not like any of the prep schools. It has the academics, but it’s such a family atmosphere.”

If St. Joseph’s is a family, then Lopez is the mother. She beams like a proud parent when alumni return to show off a good high school report card or to help tutor current students. And if an alum has not been heard from in a while, she tracks him or her down.

One time a student’s mother left her husband when he became abusive, DeVincenzo recalls. “The mom came to the steps of the convent and Sister Deborah took them both in until they could find someplace they could go. She really is an amazing resource for these kids in so many ways,” he said.

No matter how good the St. Joseph’s community has been at adjusting to change, nothing could prepare it for the most abrupt change of all that came on Sept. 11, 2001, four days into the first school year of Lopez’s new term as principal.

Lopez was just getting to know the students and their families, when, without warning, she had to be a voice of leadership amidst the chaos and tragedy of the World Trade Center attacks. St. Joseph’s reopened a week later. Many neighborhood businesses did not reopen until February.

No students or parents were harmed, but the psychological toll was inevitable. “It was a very eerie feeling,” she said. “Most of that year for us, we almost never really could say that we got started. Many of the children were very frightened.”

Once things finally settled down, Lopez got a grant called School Arts Rescue from the ASCAP Foundation to implement a music therapy program that teaches children to express themselves through music. She thought the program was so beneficial in the healing process that she has continued to secure funding from the Archdiocese, making it a permanent part of the St. Joseph’s experience.

While the compassion of the St. Joseph’s faculty and staff helped to heal the students’ psychological and emotional scars, the school has faced a host of other challenges stemming from 9/11 in the years since the attacks.

The school opened with 245 students at the beginning of 2001. According to Lopez, about 20 children moved immediately after 9/11 – some as far away as California – and never returned. Parents wanted their kinds where they could be reached easily in an emergency, so many commuting students quit as well. Others moved because their parents’ Downtown workplaces were forced to close as a result of the attacks. By the end of the year, enrollment was down to 210. That number fell again over the summer.

Aside from a few annual fundraisers, the school’s only source of revenue is the $3,150 a year that families pay for tuition, which is less than most private schools in the city. Plus many families receive financial aid. While enrollment has stabilized at 175 since 2003, the drop following 9/11 has made it increasingly difficult to make ends meet.

Lopez anticipates even more demographic changes in the near future resulting from current housing booms to the north, just below Houston, and to the south, near the South Street Seaport. She says the increase in housing is raising rents, which might force many of the working class families who send their children to St. Joseph’s out of the neighborhood.

But she is not disheartened. Her lifetime of experiences at St. Joseph’s have taught her that change is part of life on the Lower East Side. She will approach new developments as she always has – with an open heart, while holding tightly to the principals she holds dear.

“When I walk around I see things that bring those years backs back to me,” Lopez said about being the principal of the same school she attended as a child. “The neighborhood has changed, but there are things that we are doing now that we did when I was in school – the religious practices and some of the procedures for the daily operation of the school – that are exactly the same as they were when I was a child, and they provide a lot of comfort to me.”

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