View Full Version : All NYC Closing of St. Martin of Tours in the Bronx reflects crisis of Catholic schools in NYC

06-25-2011, 10:03 AM
From the N.Y. Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/26/nyregion/st-martin-of-tours-bronx-catholic-school-closes.html) by David Gonzalez:
JUST don’t cry. That has been Sister Nora McArt’s mantra. She has been unflappable in her 42 years at St. Martin of Tours Elementary School in the Bronx, braving the gang fights, racial unrest and crack wars that were waged outside the school and convent in the Crotona neighborhood. No matter the mayhem, she had to be calm for the children.

Until now.

The sight of old textbooks lining the hallways elicits a sniffle. A teacher’s hug leaves Sister Nora dabbing at her eyes. And forget about the kindergarten graduation, which left her speechless when she beheld the nine youngsters sitting before the altar in blue caps and gowns.

“We are honored to have with us the future college graduates of ...” She paused, bit her lip and looked at the children. Her voice cracked. “Of ... 20 ... 27.”

Sister Nora praised them for learning about God, reading and respect.

“We look forward to hearing about the progress they make as they continue their educational journey ... elsewhere.”

She made it, barely. The “elsewhere” was the killer, as it has been since January, when Sister Nora was told the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York had decided St. Martin’s would close after 86 years. Pleas and plans to save the school were received and rejected. Wednesday was the school’s final day.

Most of the 104 students at St. Martin’s will be scattered to other Catholic schools. The nine lay teachers on the faculty may not be as lucky — more than 250 teachers are already unemployed throughout the cash-strapped archdiocese, and schools are retrenching.

St. Martin’s is among 26 archdiocesan elementary schools closing this month because of the shrinking enrollments and ballooning deficits the Catholic school system has been experiencing for decades. The archdiocese says its closings are the first step in reorganizing and strengthening its remaining schools — even though teachers at St. Martin’s and other schools wonder if the shutdowns only foretell the demise of urban parochial education.

In 1961, the archdiocese had 212,781 students in 414 elementary and high schools. This year, including the schools that are closing, there were 79,782 children at 274 schools.

Before the advent of charter schools, these schools helped generations of immigrant children become Americans and professionals. They continued to propel Latino and African-American children into the middle class after the tumult of the 1960s, when drastic changes washed over both the church and urban America. They were also the source of religious vocations.

Sister Nora, 66, has not had much time for reflection. Much of her time this month was spent running between her office and the classrooms, closing accounts and guiding teachers through the uncomfortable rituals of throwing out books, clearing out classrooms and taking down crucifixes and statues of saints.

“The teachers and I try to hide our feelings from the kids,” said Sister Nora, who became principal in 2006. “But when we’re in the faculty room, it’s another story. We go from anger to resentment to mourning, and back to anger. I just don’t know where we’re going. What’s going to happen to the church? Nobody’s thought that far ahead — not just the parish, but the church in general in New York.”

This school has long been a sanctuary amid uncertainty — as it was for me starting in 1964, when my parents fled Hunts Point for the safety of Crotona. The fires followed a few years later, and we moved away in 1969. But I still took two buses from Morris Heights — past blocks reduced to rubble — until I graduated.

Forget the cheap jokes about ruler-swinging nuns gliding through the aisles in full-length habits. For those of us who saw our neighborhood almost vanish in smoke from arson or crack pipes, Sister Nora stands as a reminder of the sacrifices made happily and gifts given freely by women religious. Through word and deed they taught us the works of mercy: to feed the poor, clothe the naked and educate the ignorant.

To comfort the afflicted.

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