by John B.Murphy
On June 27, 2009, the Feast of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, a group of educators, religious and corporate volunteers set to work cleaning out the long-closed St. Barbara’s elementary school in Bushwick, as a first step in the creation of what would become the new Pope John Paul II Family Academy (PJPFA). In the weeks that followed, nothing less than a miracle took place. A building became a school. Individual educators became a faculty. Strangers from different lands and languages became a student body and parent community. Religious from Rome and India and the Bronx became our Sisters and Brother. And together with dedicated lay men and women, the school opened on time in September.
I had the honor of being the founding headmaster and president of PJPFA. I selected the teachers and with them directed the renovation of the facility, secured donations, purchased books, materials and supplies, interviewed students and parents and planned curriculum. We culled the ideas and vision of an anonymous benefactor and developed a mission rooted in the belief that poor children deserve an opportunity to have a superior Catholic education.
So we partnered with underserved Brooklyn families who were devoted to their Catholic faith and created an educational experience based on worship, academics and enrichment. We wanted our students to be critical thinkers, productive moral citizens and leaders who would be unapologetically Catholic. We dreamed that our graduates would further their studies and become mature, responsible, virtuous, successful leaders who would be productive spiritual American men and women.
To say that the school had a successful first year would minimize the miracle. Everything that was planned and implemented worked! Against all odds and under unique circumstances, Catholic teaching and learning took place at heightened levels of achievement. All families were expected to attend Sunday Mass, and they willingly and spiritually complied. All stakeholders attended family faith formation events. Students came to school at 7:45 a.m., had breakfast, lunch and dinner and left at 5:30 p.m. School trips brought them apple picking in the country, to museums in Manhattan and to a national cemetery where they placed American flags on the graves of the fallen. The creed of the school was brought to life: Pro Deo et Patria, Familia et Schola – For God and Country, Family and School.
On June 20, five years after opening its doors to the Catholic children and families of Bushwick, PJPFA will close. Lack of funds to support this tuition-free school has brought about its premature demise. Since the announcement, the school has continued to meet the needs of its children, thanks to the dedicated lay teachers, principal and staff, the Sisters of Our Lady of the Garden and an Irish Christian Brother. We thank them for the gifts they have imparted upon the children. And, we thank those responsible for creating PJPFA. They made possible these five years of superior Catholic education in Bushwick. The seeds that have been sown will bear much fruit.
For an educator, there are few things sadder than a school being closed. It’s the demise of a community whose bonds were forged by hard work, shared decision-making, familial love, good humor, empathetic grief and inexplicable joy. Friends and classmates will go in different directions and learn what goodbye really means. Colleagues will worry about employment and mortgage payments; parents will stress the inability to pay private school tuition or the process of transitioning into public education. Schools are organic. Closing a school is tantamount to a death.
So if this be the untimely death of a school, let the epitaph of the Pope John Paul II Family Academy be the living members of this teaching and learning community who go now into the world, bringing with them all that they have learned and witnessed in this most Catholic of settings. Let prayer and practice mark them as being “different.”
And in that difference, may those whom they encounter along the way of life see in them what Catholic men and women ought to be. May they live their lives for God and country, family and faith! Their school taught them to do so. Their teachers modeled it. Their religious lived it. And for an all-too-brief moment in time, their Catholic faith enabled it.