On Oct. 29, 2012, a deluge of water surged through the halls of St. Francis de Sales School, Belle Harbor. Hurricane Sandy had left a devastating imprint on the school community and forced the building to close temporarily.
But on Jan. 22, there was a different kind of deluge roaming through St. Francis – a deluge of students and their families eager to return to their home school building.
St. Francis de Sales School was the last Catholic school building in the diocese to officially reopen after suffering the effects of Sandy. Though it was a snowy, blistery day in January, the reopening felt like the first day of school, with the students filing in dressed in their uniforms and the parents chatting in the lobby.
Sister Patricia Chelius, C.S.J., principal, could not contain her smile as she stood in the lobby, hugging and greeting the children as they walked through the front doors – a practice she does on most days. The teachers and staff wore yellow T-shirts with the phrase “Stronger than Sandy.”
“We’re just happy to be back,” Sister Patricia said. “I cannot speak more highly of my teachers. They were wonderful.”
Joining Sister Patricia in the lobby was Msgr. John Brown, pastor. He gave the kids “high-fives” and spoke of the heroic efforts of Sister Patricia and the teachers in keeping the school together.
“The kids are very excited to be back, and we’re really happy to have them back,” Msgr. Brown said. “Children give life to a place, and the neighborhood was lacking that life because most of the children weren’t staying here.”
After the storm, the main floor of the school building suffered water damage, but the bulk of the destruction came in the basement to the boiler and electrical system. A new gymnasium floor was still drying as the students returned, and there are still steps to be taken in the renovation process.
“Right now, we’re just happy that we got our school back, and we’ll work out the kinks as we go along,” Msgr. Brown said.
During the rebuilding phase, the students attended class first at Good Shepherd School, Marine Park, but spent the majority of the three-month period at SS. Simon and Jude School, Gravesend, which was vacant.
Sister Patricia said the diocese and the parish welcomed them with open arms to SS. Simon and Jude and that the accommodations were “marvelous.”
“They (the diocese) really made it very homey for us, but it wasn’t home,” she said. “This (St. Francis) is home to us.”
Though the disaster wreaked havoc on the area, it also united the community around the rebuilding process and getting back into a routine.
“The key words are ‘build community,’” said Dr. Thomas Chadzutko, superintendent of schools. “It’s all about the children being in a place that they are comfortable with and being with people that they trust and love and vice versa.”
Mike Keller, the father of kindergarten student Mikey Keller, said the adjustment period was difficult in the beginning since his son had to wake up an hour earlier to get to school. Many St. Francis students boarded coach buses at the Belle Harbor Yacht Club which then brought them to Gravesend.
“It’s more convenient now for the kids, and I think everybody gets back to normalcy,” Keller said. “It’s been a long trip.”
“It’s been 80-plus days,” said Julanne Keller, Mikey’s mother. “These kids were ready and excited to come back.”
About 75 percent of the student body returned, but others were forced to permanently relocate since their families’ houses were destroyed in the storm. Still, it was business as usual for those who were there.
“Coming back here is what they’re (the students) dying for,” said Kelly Duffy, the St. Francis de Sales home school board president. “They’re back with their friends in their classes with their teachers. This is our new normal.”
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the opening of the school, but the events will be pushed back a year to allow for a proper celebration. However, the faculty and parents alike were most concerned with getting the children back in their normal learning environment in the wake of the natural disaster.
“The school’s been around for 100 years,” Msgr. Brown said. “And it will be around for 100 more.”