Diocesan News

Rockaway Park, Broad Channel Sites Move Forward

by Marie Elena Giossi

One of the positive outgrowths from Hurricane Sandy at St. Camillus School is an expanded early childhood center, featuring a brand new pre-kindergarten program and a new kindergarten classroom, above, made possible by the Heisman Trophy Trust Fund.
One of the positive outgrowths from Hurricane Sandy at St. Camillus School is an expanded early childhood center, featuring a brand new pre-kindergarten program and a new kindergarten classroom, above, made possible by the Heisman Trophy Trust Fund.

Water surged through the streets of Rockaway Park and Broad Channel on the night Hurricane Sandy hit the Rockaway Peninsula. Homes and buildings were damaged and destroyed, displacing residents, school children and Special Olympians.

“I never expected the amount of damage, devastation and the complete change that has taken place on the Rockaway Peninsula,” said Father Richard Ahlemeyer, pastor of St. Camillus-St. Virgilius, which serves the Rockaway Park and Broad Channel communities. “It has definitely been a life-changing event.”

He rode out the storm in St. Camillus’ rectory. When it passed, he went out to assess the damages.

“I actually thought we weathered the storm pretty well,” he said, until he approached the church parking lot.

“I asked myself, ‘When did we put a light pole in the middle of the parking lot?’ There was an 80-foot section of the boardwalk with the light poles, the benches, all the things, completely intact.”

Of the 12 parish buildings, 10 were flooded and severely damaged, including St. Camillus School, which took in nearly two feet of water, and St. Virgilius Church, Broad Channel, where the water covered the pews.

An extensive cleanup and recovery effort required the replacement of several boilers, new electrical wiring and mold remediation. Carpets were removed and flooring replaced. With the help of volunteers, every building was repaired except two in Broad Channel that are used for religious education. Father Ahlemeyer hopes to repair those when he has the funds.

The only two buildings that were spared major damages were the convents, which house the Sisters of St. Joseph at St. Camillus and Daughters of Wisdom at St. Virgilius.

Putting the Children First

One of the main priorities was getting the school up and running. Following the storm, it was clear to the pastor and then principal, Sister Agnes White, C.S.J, now retired, that the building was not safe.

In consultation with the diocesan Catholic schools and insurance offices, the school community was relocated to Ave Maria Catholic Academy, Howard Beach, until the building was clean and air quality was safe. Students returned in mid-December.

“We wanted to give them (students) as much a sense of normalcy as possible,” shared Elizabeth Boyle, fourth-grade teacher and Broad Channel resident. “We tried to make them feel like life wasn’t as crazy as it actually was.”

The kindergarten, located in a one-room building on the church grounds, was completely destroyed. A grant from the Heisman Trophy Trust Fund, obtained through the efforts of parishioner Timmy Henning, enabled the building to be renovated and reopened by Easter.

When new principal, Lisa Kennedy, arrived in August, major repairs and changes were underway at the hands of volunteers, including women religious, from as close as Pennsylvania and as far as Iowa.

Among the projects undertaken over the summer was the replacement of flooring in Springman Hall, the school gymnasium, which suffered severe water damage. Several donations, including $20,000 from the N.Y.S. chapter of the Knights of Columbus, made the renovation possible.

Besides monetary donations and hands-on help, the school received an outpouring of support in the form of school supplies, games, Christmas presents and rosary beads from people around the country.

While local children and families grew closer in the wake of the storm, Boyle said, “They also got to see their world isn’t just Rockaway.”

Many students’ families are rebuilding, and some are still living in rented spaces or with relatives while repairs are underway.

Of the 170 children that were registered at the school last year, only 130 returned after the storm. This fall, school opened with 169 students, including some newcomers enrolled in a brand new pre-kindergarten program.

Special Athletes Return

Volunteers, including these religious sisters, above, pitched in to help St. Camillus School get in good shape for the new school year.
Volunteers, including these religious sisters, above, pitched in to help St. Camillus School get in good shape for the new school year.

This fall also saw the return of the Rockaway Special Olympians, who met up in Springman Hall on Oct. 21.

After the storm, St. Rose of Lima parish, Rockaway Beach, provided space to the developmentally disabled athletes, but as evidenced by their cheers and smiles on the night they returned to St. Camillus, there was nothing like going home.

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