End of an Era: Our Lady of Angels School Closes

By Camila Thomas

Last June, Maria Jose walked out of Sunday Mass at Our Lady of Angels church, on Sedgwick Avenue in Kingsbridge. She picked up the church’s Sunday bulletin and flipped to the section called “From the Pastor’s Desk,” a space where the church’s pastor, Father Thomas Lynch, writes to the congregation. Jose read the first lines: “Our parish school of 85 years has officially closed.”

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Our Lady of Angels school, a small Catholic elementary school located in Claflin Avenue, was closed down last June because of financial problems. (Photo by Camila Thomas)

After almost nine decades of operation, Our Lady of Angels school – along with three other parochial schools in the Bronx that were on probation – is being shut down by the New York Archdiocese for lack of funds. Its Board of Trustees had delayed the decision to close the school for about a month to give members of Our Lady of Angels parish a chance to propose a plan to save the school. After a long and exhausting battle to convince the directors of the Archdiocese, the Board of Trustees made a final decision. Our Lady of Angels school was officially closed this past June.

“It feels weird, knowing you can’t go back to the school anymore,” Jose said about the closure.

The closure affects not only students who attended the school, but also Kingsbridge youth that used the building for religious education programs on Wednesday afternoons.

Jose, a 15 year-old resident of Kingsbridge, said she has been living in the neighborhood for five years, with her mother and older sister. Jose said her family regularly attends Sunday mass at Our Lady of Angels church. “I wouldn’t say we are 100% catholic, but we do believe in God,” she explained.

Jose attends In-Tech Academy, a high school in the Bronx, but she said she has been closely connected to the Our Lady of Angels school ever since she moved from the Dominican Republic to New York in 2007. From 2010 to 2012, Jose took classes at Our Lady of Angels in preparation for the sacraments of Communion and Confirmation.

Jose said she occasionally volunteered at the school’s Saturday classes for children. She and her family attended Christmas parties and celebrations in honor of important saints at the school’s gym, which would serve as an auditorium when needed. She also said she once modeled for a church fundraising fashion show.

“I’m sure not only the students will miss the school,” said Jose, adding that the school was a place for the entire community to come together and celebrate..

Our Lady of Angels was founded in 1928. The school, a four-story building, held classes for students between pre-K and eighth grade. The school’s main entrance on Claflin Avenue is modest, lacking any fancy signs. Its gym was used as a physical education room for students, a ballroom for parties organized by the church and, occasionally, an improvised church for the younger children attending Saturday school.

The administrators of Our Lady of Angels are not alone. In a press release distributed last January, the Archdiocese of New York named 26 catholic elementary schools at risk of being closed. Out of those, only four will remain open next year. These schools were reviewed using new standards in order to “assure a vibrant future for Catholic education in the Archdiocese of New York,” the Archdiocese said in the release.

The schools “at risk” were given a chance to stop the decision but needed to come up with an effective financial plan . Seven of them are located in the Bronx.

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The rectory of Our Lady of Angels church,located behind the school’s building. (Photo by Camila Thomas)

To Pastor Thomas Lynch, losing the school is not a reason to be upset. Instead, he said that he feels proud of the support the school received from its community. The Archdiocese had required the school raise $1 million in order to support itself for five years without the need of the Archdiocese’s financial aid. The church managed to raise $231,000, less than a year’s expenses.

“We tried our best, but it was not enough to stay alive even for a year,” said Father Lynch. He said the school raised about $31,000 in three weeks, an anonymous donation of $10,000, and many pledges from the neighborhood. The money donated will be used for the parish’s expenses.

Born and raised in the Bronx, Father Lynch has been the pastor of Our Lady of Angel for six years. He was a priest at the Church of the Holy Family in Castle Hill, and taught in seminary for eight and a half years. He lived in Bolivia for a year to study Spanish, then returned to the Bronx.

Father Lynch recalled first hearing about the school being “at risk” last November. The school, along with the others in the same area, fell under the jurisdiction of a region board. Our Lady of Angels church appealed to the regional board right away. In fact, Father Lynch said the board congratulated them for taking action faster than any of the other four schools.

“Our plan was showing the Board why our school is needed in this community. We practiced for three days, anticipating the questions they would ask,” said Father Lynch. He explained that one of the questions they were asked was, “what would you do to finance the school if you were given a year?”

Father Lynch blamed the lack of Catholic faith and tuition costs for the closure of parish schools in recent years. According to him, the annual tuition at Our Lady of Angels was $37,000, but many students were granted “cardinal scholarships,” reducing the tuition to $6,000.

When asked what made Our Lady of Angels different from other schools, Father Lynch talked about its family atmosphere. He praised the teachers and said they took their professions as more than a job. He said the students made the school “more than a place where you learn.”

“To a lot of these students, Our Lady of Angels was a second home,” said Father Lynch.

Susana Berges, a member of the Altar Rosary Society at the church, said that the school was a place the whole community knew and loved. Both of her daughters prepared for the sacrament of Confirmation there, and they attended parties at the school’s gym. The Altar Rosary Society and other clubs in the parish organized raffles and sold food for fundraising.

Berges said she felt sad that a school with so much influence in her community would be closed.

“We feel bad about the school, but what else could we do?” she said in Spanish.“Before, I prayed for the school not to close. Now, I pray for all the kids who don’t know what school they will go to in September.”

According to Father Lynch, the region board has invited former students of the school to attend any of the parish schools in the region, like the Visitation School, located in Van Cortlandt.

The building where the Our Lady of Angels used to operate will continue to be used for religious instruction for the youth of Kingsbridge. One of the proposals for the future of the building is renting it to a public school, though no plans have been finalized yet.

“We still want to serve the community, even without the school,” Father Lynch said.

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