by Stephen Childs
In providing for its future, St. Luke’s elementary school in Whitestone also memorialized its past – a past dating back more than a century.
Last Friday, June 1, at the school’s yearly outdoor Mass in honor of Our Lady, St. Luke’s dedicated a newly built playground to the Sisters of St. Dominic, who founded the school in 1910.
St. Luke’s raised enough money last year, during the school’s centennial, to begin the project, which it paid off this year through additional fund-raising efforts.
“We want it to be remembered that the Dominican Sisters founded the school,” said Annette Vella, a second grade teacher who has taught at St. Luke’s for 15 years.
But, says Msgr. John Tosi, pastor, in paying tribute to the Dominican Sisters, who no longer teach at St. Luke’s, “we wanted to do something for the future, not just the glory days of the past.” Hence the “Dominican Playground.”
“It’s going to help the school in giving students a safe and enjoyable place to play at recess,” said Msgr. Tosi, who says the parish currently educates 500 students, from nursery through eighth grade, and expects that number to increase next year. “It’s a sign of life, a sign of vitality; it’s a sign we’re growing.”
Auxiliary Bishop Frank J. Caggiano celebrated the Mass, delivering a homily on the Blessed Mother’s role in our daily lives. After the homily, a procession that included all of the school’s second and seventh graders, clad in their Communion outfits and Confirmation robes, respectively, along with student representatives from each of the other grades, placed floral crowns on two statues of Mary – one by the ceremony’s altar, and the which was other recently moved from the parish’s now-vacant convent to stand by the playground. Then, following Communion, Bishop Caggiano blessed the playground in front of a crowd numbering nearly 1,000, comprising parishioners, faculty, staff, parents, St. Luke’s 500 students and Dominican Sisters who, having formerly taught at St. Luke’s, returned for the celebration.
As tokens of gratitude, St. Luke’s presented both Bishop Caggiano and the Dominican Sisters with tributes. For his part in the dedication ceremony, the bishop received a book on the church’s stained glass windows and an engraved stone, dedicated to the memory of his parents, that rests beneath the statue of Mary now watching over the new playground.
A second stone, dedicated to the Dominican Sisters, was presented to Sister Mary Hughes, O.P., prioress for the Sisters of St. Dominic and a teacher at St. Luke’s during the 1970s, who then addressed those in attendance.
Sister Hughes discussed the sense of family that has always pervaded St. Luke’s school coupled with strong leadership as the keys to its success and said what a blessing and privilege it was that the families entrusted her sisters with their most precious possessions – their children. Now, said Sister Hughes, the Dominican Sisters are glad that the children have someplace to play and be watched over by the statue of Mary.
“It was very moving to be here,” she said. “All of the sisters who were here thought it was a wonderful place to be.”
Besides Sister Hughes, six other Dominican Sisters returned for the dedication Mass.
Sister Joan Klimski, O.P., now the director of faith formation at Incarnation parish, Queens Village, taught second grade and sixth and seventh grade social studies and religion from 1975 through 1982. During her time at the school, she says the blend of sisters and lay teachers combined with camaraderie between the faculty and parents made St. Luke’s “a great place to work.” Upon her return, she says she enjoyed seeing both former students and parents of her former students.
“The place never lost the warmness,” Sister Joan said of the atmosphere and strong sense of community she encountered. “There are new teachers, but there is the same spirit.”
Barbara Reiter, principal since 1997 and a teacher from 1985 to 1997, said she agrees with Sister Joan about the school’s sense of community and family. But the return of another sister, Carol Anton, O.P., 82, held special personal meaning for her, says Reiter. Not since 1964, when Reiter graduated from St. Luke’s herself, had she seen her then-eighth grade teacher, Sister Carol.
In keeping with the emphasis on both the past and the future, Sister Maryann Seton Lopiccolo, S.C., episcopal delegate for religious, summarized the day’s prevailing mood: “It’s nice to see that the sisters are remembered and the traditions that they started are continuing.”