by Marie Elena Giossi
This fall, St. Gregory the Great School, Crown Heights, is celebrating its 100th anniversary of providing a quality Catholic education to the more than 10,000 boys and girls who have walked through its doors.
“Our mission is to strive to create a rich educational and spiritual environment within which our students can grow and flourish in communion with Jesus Christ,” said Rudolph Cyrus-Charles, now in his fifth year as principal.
Anniversary festivities began with an opening Mass at St. Gregory the Great Church on Sept. 18. A reception followed at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum.
Plans for this centennial year also include a Christmas extravaganza, a family sports day, a “Miss St. Gregory’s” pageant, an awards dinner and commemorative journal, and a closing Mass on Sept. 16, 2012 at St. Gregory the Great Church. School children are looking forward to a year of competitions in the arts and sciences, various field trips, and a centennial history quiz next June.
Students have nine months to learn about the rich history of their school, which opened on Sept. 16, 1912, six years after the parish was founded. The first classes were held in two church-owned houses at 995 and 997 St. John’s Pl. Four Sisters of Mercy staffed the school, which began with over 80 students, mostly Irish and some German and Italian, reflecting the community of that time.
Within a decade, about 200 were enrolled and a school building was needed to accommodate the growing student body. In 1921, construction began on the three-story white pressed brick and limestone school building that presently stands at 991 St. John’s Pl.
After World War II, area residents relocated to the suburbs and African-American families settled into the neighborhood. According to the 1962 school census, enrollment was strong with 646 students, who were instructed by 14 religious women and one laywoman. Annual tuition was $50.
Change came following Vatican II when Mass attendance and parochial school registrations declined. St. Gregory’s enrollments dropped to 410 students by 1972.
In 1973, Bishop Francis J. Mugavero called for a new approach to Catholic education, namely cluster schools. Crown Heights saw the consolidation of four parish grammar schools, representing five parishes – St. Gregory the Great, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Matthew, St. Joseph and the only church without a school, St. Ignatius.
The parish schools closed in June, 1974, and that September, two cluster schools opened – Unity Catholic at the former site of St. Gregory, and Holy Spirit at the former site of St. Teresa.
Though the school operated under a different name, “the faculty and staff remained loyal to providing a quality Catholic education,” noted Cyrus-Charles, who joined the faculty in 1986. By then, Unity Catholic was staffed entirely by lay people.
In 1990, the cluster schools once again became parish schools, resuming their original names. That fall, St. Gregory had 320 students, mostly non-Catholic Christians. Cyrus-Charles credits then-pastor, Father Gary P. Rogers, with bridging financial and spiritual gaps to keep the school going.
Today, St. Gregory the Great continues to serve children in Crown Heights and Flatbush.
Recently reaccredited by the Middle States Association, the school has 235 students in nursery through grade eight. Fourteen teachers reflect the ethnic diversity of the student body, which is mainly African-American and Caribbean, with some Latino and caucasian students. Every child is Christian and 48% identify themselves as Catholic. Tuition is $3,400 for Catholics and $3,550 for non-Catholics.
A strong academic program includes daily math, science, social studies and English language arts classes. These are supplemented by Spanish language, music, art and computer classes, and a weekly project in the school science lab. Eligible children also receive Title I services and benefit from a city-funded lunch program. To nurture their spiritual growth, students have daily religion classes and student-led prayers, regular Masses and weekly prayer services, and retreats.
“We have the opportunity to help our students get to know the person of Jesus,” shared Emile Compton, eighth-grade teacher. “Going to church on a regular basis gives them a perspective of our faith and practices. We instill basic truths about the Church and what we as Catholic believe.”
Second grade teacher, Anthony Calliste agrees. “Here, children have a chance to develop spiritually – a missing component in today’s society. We have a chance to inculcate good values.”
He believes the school is flourishing under Cyrus-Charles’ “transformational leadership” and belief that “every child can learn.”
Among the school’s strengths, Cyrus-Charles pointed to his faculty, the parent-teacher association and alumni, who recently modernized the computer lab. Teachers also utilize SMART Boards in almost every classroom thanks to a federal technology grant, which provided equipment and teacher training.
On a recent afternoon, Arlene Stewart, media/technology teacher, was showing seventh graders how to create their own PowerPoint presentations – a skill, she says, they’ll need for “high school and beyond. If they have to do presentations on their jobs one day, they need to know how to do this.”
When it comes to academics and technology, Cyrus-Charles said that the school’s “mission and vision have always been updated in keeping with the trends of education.
“When I came on (as principal) we developed a motto, ‘Prepare to be Prepared.’ During these 100 years, the school has prepared students who have made outstanding marks in all arenas,” he said.
Perhaps the most notable alumnus is Joseph A. Califano, Jr., former U.S. Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, and founder/chairman of The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.
Perhaps one of the biggest changes in the school’s history occurred in May of this year. Structural problems in the school building necessitated the school community’s relocation to the former Holy Cross School, Flatbush, which was occupied by the now-closed Flatbush Catholic Academy until June, 2009.
Repairs and renovations on the almost 90-year-old school building on St. John’s Pl. are estimated at $3.5 million. The school’s advisory board is playing a major role in fundraising efforts and the school community hopes alumni will step up as well. An alumni association is taking shape with over 900 graduates and former faculty already registered.
As the school looks to its next 100 years, veteran teacher Jean Taylor, who joined the faculty in 1985, hopes that she’s done her part to lay a foundation for the future success of her students and the school.
“We are the greatest and we want to keep St. Gregory School alive and kicking,” she said.
The Principals of St. Gregory the Great School
Sister Mary Dominic Murphy, R.S.M., 1912-1923
Sister Mary Ambrose Lynch, R.S.M., 1923-29
Sister Mary Helena Collins, R.S.M. 1929-35
Sister Mary Elizabeth Carney, R.S.M. 1935-41
Sister Mary Helena Collins, R.S.M., 1941-47
Sister Mary Augustine Dowdell, R.S.M, 1947-51
Sister Mary Rosalie Temple, R.S.M., 1951-57
Sister Mary Virginia Chaloner, R.S.M., 1957-61
Sister Mary Mechtilde Lawrence, R.S.M., 1961-67
Sister Patricia Kearney, R.S.M., 1967-72
Sister Mary Waters, R.S.M., 1972-76
Sister Patricia Gale, R.S.M., 1976-85
Sister Marion Steffans, R.S.M., 1985-86
Hyacinth Van Gronigan, 1986-92
Cynthia Tege, 1992-2007
Rudolph Cyrus-Charles, 2007-present