For 2 Catholic schools, sharing has been a blessing


By Patrick Clark

A pair of bishops came to the East Village last week to bear witness to a marriage of convenience between two local Catholic schools.

St. George and La Salle academies — separate schools with long histories in the neighborhood — began sharing space last fall in an effort to relieve financial pressures that had threatened each institution.

On Feb. 16, a joint assembly of the two schools welcomed New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan and Bishop Paul Chomnycky of the Ukrainian Diocese of Stamford, Conn., to their E. Sixth St. schoolhouse. The bishops — who represent different traditions of Catholicism — toured the building and praised students for making the space-sharing arrangement work.

“It’s a tribute to the grit and determination of Catholic schools,” said Dolan. “When you grit something out together, it engenders cohesiveness, and what’s happening here is a perfect example of that.”

La Salle Academy relocated its 325 students from the school’s E. Second St. home of more than 150 years last August to escape mounting debt and a murky future. La Salle officials say the move into two floors in St. George has helped them to stave off the financial and demographic pressures that imperil many city Catholic schools.

“It allows us to continue to exist, and it allows us to stay in the East Village,” said Kenneth Famulare, vice president for institutional advancement at La Salle.

Meanwhile, rental income generated by the move has placed St. George and its 109 co-ed elementary and high school students on surer ground, administrators said.

The space-sharing arrangement also has provided opportunities for cultural exchange between two schools that belong to separate traditions within the Roman Catholic Church.

Two St. George students dressed for the occasion in traditional garb presented Dolan with a loaf of kalach bread in a Ukrainian Roman Catholic ritual that symbolizes the idea of a blessing for a blessing. Beyond the occasional cultural exchange, however, Famulare said the schools remain distinct, scheduling separate use of the cafeteria, gymnasium and science labs.

In addition to differing church customs, the schools’ students largely come from different ethnic backgrounds — St. George’s students are mostly Ukrainian-American, while about 70 percent of La Salle students trace their roots to Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic.

Stephen Quinn, an adjunct health teacher at La Salle and a member of the school’s graduating class of 1967, said that the two schools were blending well.

“I think we’re getting to know each other,” he said. “Of course, being an all-boys school, our students are probably happy to have some girls around.”

St. George students sat in the front of the gymnasium for the assembly, while La Salle youngsters filled in from the back. When Dolan pronounced that there could be no homework on the day of the bishops’ visit, students from both schools rose together to deliver thunderous applause.

The factors leading up to La Salle’s move are hardly unique. Famulare said Catholic schools typically depend on tuition and donations. But gradual shifts in population and the economic crisis of 2008 have thrust many schools into financial instability.

Last month, the Archdiocese of New York announced that it would close 27 schools, including one high school, at the end of the year. In late 2009, La Salle’s board of directors determined that the school needed a third stream of income in order to survive.

A shifting East Village population also has threatened St. George Academy, school Principal Reverend Deacon Peter P. Shyshka said. When the second wave of Ukrainian immigrants hit the East Village after World War II, parish rolls grew past 10,000. To meet increasing need, the parish opened the E. Sixth St. schoolhouse in 1956.

In those days, St. George elementary school Principal Sister Theodosia recalled, the Ukrainian community stretched from Houston to 14th Sts.

“Then the drug pushers came, and the Ukrainian families picked up and left,” she said. “The neighborhood cleaned up and many tried to move back, but the rents are sky high. But they all come back to the home parish for the holidays.”

Father Bernard Panczuk, pastor of St. George Ukrainian Catholic Church, estimated that the church has 4,000 parishioners today, but said about 75 percent of them live outside the East Village. That shift away from the neighborhood has caused St. George Academy’s enrollment to fall dangerously below capacity. Before La Salle moved in, St. George housed about 100 students in a facility built for more than 500.

Across Taras Shevchenko Place from the school stands a new and strikingly contemporary Cooper Union academic building. At night, said Shyshka, the young and stylish pour into the neighborhoods bars and restaurants. But if demographic changes have diminished each school’s student base, they have also provided a new opportunity.

At the end of the 2010 school year, La Salle leased its facilities on E. Second St. to a for-profit private school, and leased two large floors of classrooms from St. George at a significantly lower rate. La Salle is no longer running up debt, and is awarding more scholarships than it has in recent years, Famulare said. St. George, meanwhile, has found the ideal tenant for its unused space.

“Listen, the neighborhood has been changed by gentrification,” said Shyshka. “That’s happened all over New York. What’s important is that we have in La Salle a partner for the future. We always shared the neighborhood, and we always shared a belief in the value of a Catholic education. Now we share a space.”