by Jay Akasie
This is the third article in a special series on the reconfiguration process in the diocese.
Suppose, just for a moment, that a Catholic living in the Diocese of Brooklyn during the mid-20th century could somehow be transported to the present day. He’d be mighty impressed by the current parish re-organization plan, Christ Jesus, Our Hope.
Yet our visitor from the 1950s would not be bowled over by the size and scope of the new plan. As difficult as it might be to imagine, sweeping diocesan reorganizations have occurred in Brooklyn and Queens many times before – and many of them were even more far-reaching than the program of the current day.
In 1958, for example, Archbishop Bryan J. McEntegart commissioned a multi-faceted study to determine how the Diocese of Brooklyn was changing in the decade after the end of World War II. To anyone on the street, it would have been obvious that the Baby Boom was in full force. Many of the children born in the years immediately following the end of the war were filling parishes and their schools across Brooklyn and Queens. The diocese estimated that it had some 30,000 additional elementary school-aged children than just a decade earlier. Some of the schools serving them dated to the 19th century and their physical plants were lacking modern amenities by the standards of the day.
It had been as recent as the 1930s that the Diocese of Brooklyn, under Archbishop Thomas E. Molloy, led the nation in how it planned and built parishes and their associated schools and convents. “The advent of World War II in the 1940s, however, followed by the expanding population growth of the eastern counties, which demanded new parish development, had caused the development of the diocesan high school facilities and services to lag behind,” said the diocesan Secretary for Education, Msgr. Eugene Molloy, during a historical retrospective in The Tablet in 1967.
So by 1960, Archbishop McEntegart announced an ambitious plan to meet the needs of the growing population of school-aged children across the diocese. He would oversee the construction of no less than six high schools that would redefine the make-up of the diocese during the second half of the 20th century. Three of the high schools would be in Brooklyn. But the other three would be in Queens, the younger and – up to that point, at least – the less populated of the two boroughs.
In later decades, the diocese was a bit more reluctant to make such ambitious planning moves as those taken by Archbishop McEntegart.
Msgr. Michael Hardiman, who has been active in the diocese’s educational efforts for 30 years, said that if the diocese had implemented the educational planning recommendations of the Catholic University’s Professor John Convey in the early 1990s, there might not have been so many painful school closings many years later.
“There’s always some pushback when you talk about planning for the future. It’s O.K. to talk about planning, just so long as it’s planning for your place. Not my place. (There’s a feeling of) I can do it by myself,” Msgr. Hardiman said.
Smart and Savvy Perspective
Indeed, back in the 1960s, times were different. Building three enormous high schools in Queens was a sign that the Diocese of Brooklyn had a smart and savvy perspective on the shifting demographics of New York City. Instead of sitting back and longing for “the good old days,” the archbishop charged ahead with hope and optimism. He knew that by staying one step ahead of the demographic changes, the Diocese of Brooklyn would remain on solid footing.
The first of the new so-called “double” high schools – named as such because they catered to boys and girls – arose on the site of the former Rivercrest Hospital in Astoria. The diocese named the high school Mater Christi because the entire diocesan reorganization of the day was placed under the patronage of our Blessed Lady. Mater Christi would accommodate 3,000 students with an auditorium that fit nearly all of them, as well as a state-of-the-art gymnasium and a library filled with 30,000 books.
Mater Christi was dedicated by the archbishop in 1963 as a “double” high school, where boys and girls attended separate classes in the same building and with two different faculties. Only a decade later did the supervisory principal, Father Cosmo Saporico, announce that beginning in the 1974-75 school year that Mater Christi would become a co-educational facility under a single administration. Another innovation of the 1970s was that laypeople would be appointed to key posts in the administration, serving side by side with the Sisters of Mercy.
A year later, the principal of Nazareth High School, John A. Roache, announced that the school that was built for boys would accept applications from girls as well, and that the girls would be held to the same academic standards on the entrance applications. “If all the girls outperform all the boys, we’ll have an all-female entering class next year,” he said.
Other schools built in the early 1960s included Christ the King on Metropolitan Ave., a mammoth facility for 3,000 boys and girls in Middle Village; Bishop Ford, along the Prospect Expressway in Park Slope, adjacent to what is now the diocesan headquarters. Originally, Ford housed 1,800 boys and would be served by the Franciscan Brothers. Now it is co-ed with an enrollment of nearly 800 students.
“These buildings became national models for expansion in Catholic secondary education,” wrote Msgr. Molloy, looking back in 1967. “The bold daring involved in such planning inspired similar plans for development not only in the dioceses in the metropolitan area but, indeed, across the country.”
The diocese has been at the forefront of nimble, intelligent change in order to meet the spiritual and academic needs of Catholics for more than 150 years. That’s why Christ Jesus, Our Hope, given its illustrious predecessors, will be the latest in a string of reorganizations and planning efforts for a bright future.
The diocese is in a stronger position than it has been in decades, according to Msgr. John Bracken, former Vicar General for the diocese. Msgr. Bracken said that as recently as the early 1980s, it became apparent to many diocesan administrators that they had inherited a 19th-century parish structure that was not functioning at its optimum level near the end of the 20th century. In fact, says Msgr. Bracken, the early 1980s was a time best described by the tale ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes.’ People weren’t wanting to recognize the issues at hand,” he said.
“When you have a parish that once had 20,000 people and now you have 200 people attending Mass on Sunday, you realize that you have a significant problem of sustaining some of those buildings. They are great legacies and testimonies of faith on the part of those who built them, but we began to see we needed to make adjustments,” Msgr. Bracken said.
In fact, it was Auxiliary Bishop Raymond A. Kearney, for whom one of the other six high schools was named, who paid the following tribute to the communicants of the Diocese of Brooklyn: “No laity, anywhere, are more devoted to the cause of religion or are more in union with their chief pastor. When the need calls they can be depended upon for generosity, sacrifice, and effort.”