The recent closing of St. Mary’s School in Champlain is part of the seismic changes in the American Catholic Church since the 1950s.
Locals remember other Roman Catholic schools that have suffered a similar fate: St. Augustine’s in Peru, which my children attended; St. Alexander’s in Morrisonville; St. Johns, Our Lady of Victory, and Mount Assumption Institute in Plattsburgh.
Fifty years ago, Catholic schools weren’t closing, they were thriving. And as I watched a granddaughter graduate from Peru Central School in June, I thought back to my graduation from a very Catholic high school.
The Diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y. — covering Long Island’s Nassau and Suffolk counties — was created in 1957. Its first bishop, Walter Kellenberg, came from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Ogdensburg. A year later, St. Pius X Preparatory Seminary admitted its first class, about 100 ninth-grade boys who wanted to become priests or believed they “had a vocation,” in the vernacular of the day. We graduated from that Long Island school in 1962.
Our education was normal for the times. We learned some physics and geometry, Hawthorne’s “The House of the Seven Gables,” Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” a bit of history and the U.S. Constitution. It was like other high schools, though we also read poet Francis Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven” and visited Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker in New York City.
But it was our plan to be priests — when we were 25(!) — that set us apart and made our school different. While sex was never far from our adolescent minds, dates with girls were forbidden. And every day at school, we celebrated Mass, entering a chapel that had an inscription in Latin urging us “to be of Christ, not of ourselves.” Rituals full of candles, bells and incense were regular parts of our lives. The rosary hung from our Chevy gear shift, and a St. Christopher medal was pinned to the car’s ceiling.