by Marie Elena Giossi
Ask Carl Ballenas how many children he has and he’ll tell you thousands.
That’s how many boys and girls Ballenas estimates have walked into his social studies classroom over the past three decades, the last 11 of which he’s spent at Immaculate Conception School (ICS), Jamaica.
“I want them all to love, preserve and respect history,” said Ballenas, a Richmond Hill historian and co-author of two books on the history of Richmond Hill and Maple Grove Cemetery.
His desire to instill an appreciation for local history in today’s youth led him to institute and become moderator of the ICS Aquinas Honor Society in 2004. He started with 20 students from the sixth, seventh and eighth grades.
The Aquinas Honor Society, a program under the umbrella of the diocese, offers engaging learning experiences for academically gifted Catholic schoolchildren in Brooklyn and Queens.
Today, the ICS Aquinas students have accomplished more than he ever imagined six years ago.
Ballenas started students with simple projects – finding the school cornerstone and composing a timeline of the parish history. Students observed the properties, formed certain hypotheses and then went to school and parish archives as the primary sources to confirm or refute what they found.
Students used what they learned to create brochures detailing the history of the school and parish, and also chose to showcase the church’s stained-glass windows in a book they created, called “Story Windows.”
Student-sleuths then turned their magnifying glass to the Jamaica Estates community, researching online articles from The New York Times and Brooklyn Eagle and scanning newspaper reels in the Jamaica Library from the turn of the 20th century.
“We followed a trail. It started with the cornerstone of our school building. The books and walking tours came out of that,” Ballenas said.
To their credit, Ballenas and the ICS students who have been part of the Aquinas Society through the years have now printed three books on their community’s history – “Jacob’s Gift: A Story of Christmas Caroling in America” (2006); “Images of America: Jamaica Estates” (2010) and “Images of America: Jamaica” (2011), the latter two published by Arcadia Publishing. Students will give a lecture on the third book at the Mid-Manhattan Public Library on Dec. 27.
As they delved into the history of Queens, Danish immigrant Jacob Riis was one of the first figures they found and they selected him as the Society’s historical patron.
Not only did he try to improve conditions for the poor, but students also discovered that Riis carried the European tradition of Christmas caroling to America – and they wrote a book about this fun fact.
This Christmas, students will commemorate the 100th anniversary of Riis’ founding of Christmas caroling in America by reading their book and singing at Flushing Town Hall, Dec. 16 and 17.
Students additionally made it their goal to honor Riis by replacing a bronze bust stolen from the Far Rockaway park named in his honor. An anonymous donor gave students $10,000, which they used to commission the bust, which was created by Brooklyn artist David Ostro, and installed in 2010.
Through the years, Ballenas says Aquinas students have received over $30,000 in grants and donations from individuals and organizations, like the diocesan Alive in Hope Foundation, for various projects.
Students have additionally developed strong ties to the Richmond Hill Historical Society and Maple Grove Cemetery, Kew Gardens.
At Maple Grove, students discovered the grave of Samuel Cisco, 1855-97, an African-American businessman who spoke out against and worked to end school segregation in New York State. In researching Cisco, students pored over old area maps to find the local “colored school” and studied separate but equal laws. Ballenas plans to have students create a mock trial kit to teach others about desegregation, the legal system and how one family made a difference.
Aquinas students, past and present, are also involved in the cemetery’s annual Spirits Alive Program, set for Oct. 15 this year. Students dress in costumes to give first-hand accounts of the cemetery’s residents, like telegraph operator Francis Marshall, who survived the Great Blizzard of 1888. He’ll be portrayed by ICS alumnus Derek Netto, who is entering Columbia University on a $50,000 scholarship this fall.
Most recently, students noticed a marker indicating remains that were removed from a church vault in Manhattan in 1877. Ballenas discovered the church was the First Colored Presbyterian Church of New York, founded by abolitionist Samuel Cornish, and known to be part of the Underground Railroad. Based on the cemetery’s internment log and Board of Health records, the remains of 308 people were relocated.
“Now the mystery is, who are these people,” Ballenas said. Students wrote to the PBS show History Detectives and hope to get help identifying these people.
“We go beyond the curriculum and do things that couldn’t be done within the walls of the classroom,” Ballenas noted. “All of these things are out there, they just need to be uncovered.”
Perhaps the most poignant project students have undertaken was the Aquinas Window of Peace and Hope, a tribute to 9/11 victims. Students created a stained-glass window, which incorporates steel from the Twin Towers and the names of several people who perished. On Sept. 9, a new bronze plaque will be blessed and placed under the window at school.
Ballenas says the new school year will bring more research into Maple Grove and a statue in the schoolyard and perhaps another book.
It will also bring a well-deserved award for the Aquinas students – and their teacher. They’ll receive the inaugural Educational Use of Archives Award from the Archivist Round Table of Metropolitan New York at Columbia University Oct. 13.
For Ballenas, the real reward has been seeing students “develop a love of history. They’re learning, exploring and realizing that their own backyard has a lot of history.”