by Marie Elena Giossi
Joy mingled with sadness as members of the final graduating class of Catherine McAuley H.S., East Flatbush, received their diplomas on Saturday, June 1.
Donning the same maroon and gold hoods previously worn by nearly 9,000 alumnae, 36 young women participated in the final commencement exercises in the school auditorium. For the first time, the ceremony was streamed live over YouTube. One junior was also permitted an early diploma.
Legacy Will Live On
“What we have been and what we are, will live on,” Sister Margaret Dempsey, R.S.M., ’64, school president, who has spent the better part of 50 years ministering in the school, told the Class of 2013. “The real McAuley will never close because it is a state of the heart.”
Earlier this year, the Sisters of Mercy Mid-Atlantic Community, which sponsors the all-girls’ Catholic secondary school, announced that this would be the 71st and final year of operation due to declining enrollment, changing demographics, rising costs, increasing deficits and the economic downswing. This academic year, enrollment was down to 155 students, while tuition and fees topped $6,000.
The Brooklyn Sisters of Mercy founded Catherine McAuley H.S. to provide quality education for young women. Brooklyn Bishop Thomas E. Molloy gave the Mercy Sisters permission to build a new girls’ high school to replace Mercy Commercial H.S., Clinton Hill, which had grown overcrowded. As a location for the new school and convent, Bishop Molloy suggested the present site.
On Sept. 14, 1942, the first class was admitted to Catherine McAuley Commercial H.S., named in honor of the Mercy Sisters’ foundress, Mother Catherine McAuley, who was dedicated to educating young women in Ireland.
Combining quality education with a focus on faith, personal development and Christian service, the school flourished. Over the years, the curriculum moved from commercial to academic and college preparatory with graduates earning scholarships and attending the nation’s finest colleges.
Small classes and a low student-teacher ratio fostered a family spirit among the girls who passed through McAuley’s doors, from those of European descent in the past to those of Caribbean and Latin American heritage today. The school welcomed all, responding to their educational and cultural needs.
In 1991, McAuley became the first and only all-girls Catholic high school in Brooklyn and Queens to be designated a Blue Ribbon School of Excellence by the U.S. Dept. of Education.
Celebrating its 60th anniversary in September, 2002, the school partnered with Boys Hope Girls Hope of New York to open Brooklyn’s first boarding school for girls in the former convent.
Despite the new life that this program and other partnerships have infused in the school over the last decade, enrollment has declined as tuition and operating costs rose, precipitating the school’s closure on June 30.
Heads held high, graduates lined up in the main hallway under an mural of Mother Catherine McAuley.
“You carry with you all of your McAuley sisters who went ahead of you,” Margaret Lake, ’64, co-principal, told the young women before they marched into the school auditorium.
Walking in their shadows were the women and men who have shaped the lives of thousands of graduates through the years – the Mercy Sisters, lay administrators and faculty.
Lake and Josephine Valente, co-principals; Sister Rosemary Maguire, R.S.M., finance director; and Sister Margaret were the last to enter the auditorium. Together, they represent over 100 years of service to the school.
The final commencement exercises featured addresses from valedictorian Keshia Lamour and salutatorian Patria Grace Anano, as well as Sister Margaret. After diplomas and honors were awarded, seniors turned their tassels and sang the school song.
Built and Loved by Mercy Sisters
Lake also recognized the school’s community partners, faculty, board of directors and the Brooklyn Mercy Sisters, “who dreamed, built, staffed, supported and loved Catherine McAuley H.S. from 1941 until 2013.”
This fall, many underclasswomen will continue their high school careers at St. Joseph’s H.S., Downtown Brooklyn. Valente said that Sister Joan Gallagher, C.S.J., St. Joseph’s principal, “has been absolutely wonderful in the way she’s welcomed our students.”
It seems an appropriate transition, Valente noted, since several students from St. Joseph H.S. transferred to McAuley in 1942 and were part of its first graduating class.
Future plans are not as secure for faculty members, many of whom have not yet found new teaching positions.
As for the property, Cristo Rey Brooklyn H.S., Bushwick, has reached an agreement with the Sisters of Mercy Mid-Atlantic Community leadership to lease the school and convent. About 40 McAuley girls currently participating in the boarding program will continue to do so as Cristo Rey students.
“The thought of leaving it (the building) empty was like abandoning a loved one,” Valente said. “The fact that it will be a school – a Catholic school – is comforting.”
Eidayjha Grand-Pierre, who is headed to Adelphi University, Garden City, L.I., on a partial scholarship this fall, said leaving McAuley is “bittersweet.”
“I’m happy, but I feel sad the school is closing. They’ve taught me more than academics; they’ve taught me the meaning of sisterhood, friendship and compassion,” she said.
Grand-Pierre plans to pursue a career in nursing, which has been inspired, she says, by the McAuley spirit of mercy. “We’re all about compassion at McAuley, and it’s made me want to go out and help others.”
Maria Ortiz, ’88, who has taught at the school for 18 years, was snapping pictures of graduates and reminding them to stay in touch via Facebook and text messaging.
“I know they’ll keep McAuley alive wherever they go,” Ortiz said. “We are the McAuley family, and we always will be.”
Members of the school community are marking these final weeks with prayer, reflection and the burial of a time capsule.
Photos © Marie Elena Giossi