BUSHWICK — A distinct, freshly painted newness greeted students on Sept. 6 for the start of the school year at St. Brigid-St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Academy.
During the summer vacation, the new Home Academy Association (HAA) at St. Brigid-St. Frances Cabrini presided over the renovation of three classrooms. Association fundraisers paid for the work at the school, which has provided Catholic education for more than 130 years.
But this is just the beginning, said the new principal, Israel Rodriguez.
During a tour of the school on Aug. 15 — his second official day on the job — Rodriguez described the renovation goals of the HAA, his predecessor, Marcia Soria, who retired, and Father Carlos Velásquez, pastor of St. Brigid-St. Frances Cabrini Parish.
They called for the renovation of all 19 classrooms, eight of which are not in use. But the total renovation is intended to make all rooms ready so that the student body can grow far beyond the 157 children enrolled now.
“I don’t know how long it’ll take us,” Rodriguez said, “but that’s what we want to do — make sure that the kids have a learning place, a good atmosphere.”
Father Velásquez announced the hiring of Rodriguez in a letter to parents dated July 26.
Rodriguez is also a longtime Catholic schools educator with a dozen years of experience as a teacher and coach, most recently at Christ the King High School in Middle Village, Queens. There, he taught religion and Spanish, and coached soccer.
The new principal was born in Granada, Spain, but at age 9 moved with his family to Newark, where his parents worked as Catholic missionaries.
Rodriguez attended seminary in Denver, but chose to become a husband and raise a family. He has seven children; five of them are students at St. Brigid-St. Frances Cabrini.
Father Velásquez said on Sept. 8 that Rodriguez was “an excellent find,” first because he speaks English and Spanish “which is so necessary here because so many of our parents only speak Spanish.
“But he’s a man of faith,” the pastor added. “And he’s filled with an incredible zeal. He got overwhelming support from everyone on the search committee.”
The HAA formed this past year under the leadership of Marlon Culqui, president, and Claudia Rodriguez (the new principal’s wife) as the vice president.
The group held a bingo night in early spring that raised several thousand dollars, which the parish matched at the direction of Father Velásquez.
“I said to myself, ‘I want to feed into that,’ ” Father Velásquez said. “And then I pledged that the parish would match whatever fundraising they were able to do.”
The school renovated the first classroom over Easter break, but more money was needed to continue work throughout the summer.
So in May the HAA produced its first Family Gala Night — a fundraiser to continue the renovation project. Again, the parish matched the proceeds. Rodriguez estimated that about $26,000 has been raised so far.
As of mid-August, two classrooms were completely renovated: one for pre-K 3 and the other for first grade.
Also, a third grade classroom was renovated in time for the first day of school. And Rodriguez noted on Sept. 11 that the crew also managed to repaint a kindergarten classroom in blue, but it still needs new flooring.
A pre-K 4 classroom also got a near-complete makeover, leaving only the floor to be replaced later, Rodriguez said.
He noted it costs about $11,000 to completely renovate a classroom, including the replacing or repainting of walls, installing a new floor, and resurfacing the ceiling.
“We’re in New York City, and that’s how it is,” Rodriguez said.
Still, Rodriguez noted, the project has managed to cut costs, particularly through the work of Carlos Espinoza, a contractor, whose daughter, now in college, attended the academy. Espinoza has another daughter and son still enrolled, Rodriguez said.
He explained that the funds covered the wages of Espinoza’s workers and building materials, while the contractor declined to charge a fee for himself.
Father Velásquez praised Soria, the former principal, for her leadership in the early stages of the renovation projects.
He also had special praise for his own predecessor, Father Jorge Ortiz-Garay, who in March 2020 became the first Catholic priest in the U.S. to die of COVID-19.
“Father Jorge worked on the auditorium — he repainted it and also some of the stairwells,” Father Velásquez said. “He saw the beginnings of the HAA committee. I think he’d be excited and joy-filled seeing all the good work that they’re doing.”
Rodriguez said more fundraisers will be held until all the work is completed. He also plans to seek donations from individuals and groups, including alumni.
He said Father Velásquez told him there was a group of alums who met for a 50-year anniversary.
“So there is a community here — people who remember this school,” he said. “I think we should reach out to them.”
St. Brigid-St. Frances Academy Catholic Academy accepts donations for ongoing classroom renovations. For information, go to: gofund.me/b4d47c7d.