FLUSHING — More than three decades separate the educations of Walter Avelin and Daniel Cepeda at St. Michael’s Catholic Academy, but they share a happy memory — the clang of a single brass handbell.
Avelin is chairman of the school’s board of directors. Cepeda now teaches fifth and fourth grade students there.
Both recalled how sisters rang the bell to signal the beginning and end of class periods, or the start and finish of recess. The tradition resumed on Sept. 6 with the start of a new school year.
Eighth graders Valeria Marquez and Chloe Lin took turns ringing the bell at the front gate that day, while Principal Philip Heide welcomed students and their parents.
The building has been a mainstay on 41st Street, next to St. Michael’s Church, since 1914. Father Vincentius Do, the pastor, took turns ringing the bell with the eighth graders.
“I am very proud,” Lin said. “It’s my first time ringing the bell. But it’s very heavy and it’s loud when you shake it close to your ear!”
Lin said she has seen the bell since she was in pre-K at the school, but she didn’t think much about it until learning its history. She said she was shocked to learn it had been at the school for at least 70 years.
Its exact origin has lingered in mystery, Heide said. No one has yet determined exactly when it came to the school. But alumni confirmed they remembered it from the 1950s.
Avelin said his earliest memories of the bell are when Sister Mary Constantia, principal from 1962-1971, put it to good use. Avelin, a security official for Macy’s and a former NYPD officer, said the bell was a sign of authority.
“When that bell rang, everyone stopped what they were doing and froze until they got direction,” he said. “Sister Constantia played John Philip Sousa music outside and we would march into school, say our prayers, and the Pledge of Allegiance.”
That was the routine on Nov. 22, 1963, when Avelin’s first grade class received word that an assassin fatally shot President John F. Kennedy in Dallas.
Likewise, on Sept. 11, 2001, Cepeda was in his kindergarten class at the school.
He remembered attending a reunion around 2007 when alumni of various generations recalled the JFK assassination and 9/11. Both times, the former students saw their teachers weep while passing notes to alert each other of the grim news. Still, they huddled and planned how to help their students.
Cepeda said that on 9/11, he saw parents frantically arrive at school.
“I guess they were worried that something was going on and they didn’t know what was going to happen next,” he said. “So they were just pulling the kids out of school.”
These dark recollections of national tragedies are offset by the love they got throughout their years from teachers, principals, parish pastors, and the bell-ringing sisters.
Cepeda said his father and siblings also attended the school. He joined the faculty there a year and a half ago.
The teacher said he was working alone in his classroom when he suddenly became overjoyed to hear the bell’s clang for the first time since he was in eighth grade.
Heide knew nothing of the bell when he became principal three years ago, but he soon saw its value.
He told of how at the end of last school year, students and teachers of all classes lined the corridors to applaud and cheer the parading eighth graders who were about to graduate.
In a video of the celebration, Patricia Marsela, eighth grade homeroom teacher, rang the bell as she proudly followed her students.
“The one thing that has always remained the same is the love at St. Michael’s that the sisters and the lay teachers have for the students, and the love that the students have for us,” Heide said. “We really owe it to the legacy of St. Michael’s to be able to hold on to our traditions, as we’ve been doing.”
Alumni also share the love. Avelin posted a photo of the bell last year on social media, which drew responses from dozens of former students.
For example, Paula Castellino Gucciardo posted, “Wow, I remember that bell! Then we used to march up the stairs! Thanks for sharing.”
“I remember even holding that bell for Sister Constantia a few times when she was in the large school yard,” wrote John Bissmann. “Also remember her standing at the window ringing it.”
Said Denise Oliva: “Nice to see that some things are still practiced.”