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History of the School

The history of St. Brigid's begins in 1839, reportedly the year that the first Catholic mass was said in the home of Bernard Powers "at the Rood in Westbury, on the Hempstead Plains of Queens County."  "The Diocese of Brooklyn was created in 1853 to minister to the three counties of Long Island, namely, Kings, Queens, and Suffolk.  [Evidently there was no Nassau County at that time.]  In 1856, the first church building, a simple wooden structure was dedicated.  "The loyal Irish of the Hempstead Plains entrusted their church to the patronage of the amazing Celtic saint, St. Brigid of Ireland."  Rev. Thomas McGronen, the first permanent resident pastor arrived in 1893.  "He at once set to work to better the conditions of his poor mission.  Sunday after Sunday he made appeals to the different congregations in Brooklyn and shortly had built a rectory."[1]  By 1896, a second church building was completed.

                                                                                                                     

In 1904, Rev. William F. McGinnis, DD, became pastor.  "His scholarly qualities immediately placed him among the foremost in the civic affairs of Westbury, and he was elected President of the Board of Education of the Public Schools which post he held until 1922 when he left Westbury.  In 1905 he launched his first project, the erection of a Parish Hall and Public Library.  Dr. McGinnis did not stop there but immediately undertook his next major task, the building of our beautiful and magnificent stone church, with its rich stained glass windows and splendid pipe organ."[2] 

 

"Some time after the completion of the new church, the old building was moved across Post Avenue, where it was remodeled to hold eight classrooms.  It became the first Parochial School in Westbury.  The re-laying of the corner-stone took place in 1915 and classes began for the first time in 1918 after Doctor McGinnis was fortunate in obtaining the assistance of the good Sisters of Notre Dame to conduct the school.  Their zeal and sacrifice was rewarded shortly after with their first class graduating in 1921.

 

In 1944, Fr. James A. Sullivan became Pastor and continued facing the demands of a growing population.  By leaps and bounds the Island developed and brought in countless families within the confines of St. Brigid.  His zeal and tireless energy saw him converting the Parish Library and Lyceum into classrooms to relieve overcrowding in the school building.  In the meantime he was going from door-to-door begging for help from his devoted parishioners to build a new School.  First he purchased $100,000 worth of land.  However he was transferred to Brooklyn before the dedication.  Father Thomas F. Code succeeded Father Sullivan as Pastor in September 1954.  From his arrival, Father Code saw that his new task was going to be a great one.  He immediately began the incessant work of raising the necessary funds to pay for the building, almost ready for occupancy.  

 

The day of Dedication came June 19, 1955.  Bishop Kearney [of Brooklyn] came to dedicate the New School.  This outstanding monument to Catholic education consists of eighteen classrooms, an auditorium with seating capacity of 900, kitchen cafeteria, medical room and the Principal's office.  The architect was William Boegel and the builder Frank Droesch & Co.  Both firms, and those associated with them in the building of our school have reason to be proud, for the work of their mind and their hand clearly indicates a conscientiousness to have their efforts give to God and to the education of his little ones, the finest place possible.  This masterpiece of architecture was constructed at the cost of $900,000.  School accommodations seem to continue the same problem as before, due to the constant influx of new families moving in the parish.  The new school opened and classes are continuing in the Parish Hall as an overflow from the new building.  Still hundreds of our children cannot be accommodated, as we would wish."[3]

 

June 19, 1955 was also the day of dedication of the Carle Place Chapel.  Since 1938 priests from St. Brigid's Parish celebrated mass in a rented storefront in the neighboring community of Carle Place.  This will figure into our story later on.   

 

"School opened on September 8, 1955 with an enrollment of 1,020 students.  Every room in the brand new school was filled to capacity and classes were still conducted in two Parish buildings on Post Avenue.  There were now 14 Sisters and three lay teachers.  The popularity of St. Brigid's School continued to grow.  On October 7, 1963 ground was broken for the addition to the school of 14 classrooms, library, health & maintenance offices, and auditorium.  The new addition was opened on September 8, 1965.  For the first time it was possible to have all the students under one roof with an enrollment of 1,470.

 

The years of full enrollment would last about five years.  Declines first began in the 1970s as tuition rate increases began to increase significantly.  The enrollment in 1973 was down to 990 with a faculty of 15 lay teachers and 10 Sisters.  The decline in Religious Vocations and changes since Vatican II began to show in the numbers of Sisters teaching in Catholic Schools throughout the United States.

 

Up until this time in the history of St. Brigid's School the students were predominantly Roman Catholic, and of Irish and Italian descent.  A significant change began in 1975 when Father Fred Schaefer became pastor.  Fr. Schaefer recognized that a change was occurring in a neighborhood within the Parish known as New Cassell.  A new wave of immigration was beginning; refugees from the civil war in El Salvador were settling in the area.  Fr. Schaefer believed that the Church had an obligation to welcome these new people into our community.  He also believed that we should educate their children.  Fr. Schaefer was able to find funding so that a number of Latino children were able to attend St. Brigid's School.  Civil strife in Haiti resulted in a wave of immigration from that country to the New Cassell neighborhood as well.  The tradition of participation in Catholic schooling among the Haitian community continued upon their arrival in the United States.  They too sent their children to St. Brigid's School.  The result was a steady wave of "white flight" that began a fundamental change in the composition of the student body.

 

Up until this time students attending St. Brigid's School, for the most part, resided in the communities served by the Parish; Westbury, South Westbury, East Meadow, and Carle Place.  As enrollment continued to decline, the school leaders decided to accept non-Catholic students.  This increased the geographic area from where students would come, to include Hempstead, Uniondale, and Roosevelt.  The students from these communities were predominantly African American and non-Catholic.  The percentage of non-Catholic students would approach 25% in the 1980s.       

 

The Catholic population continued to grow in Westbury, Carle Place, and South Westbury.  Haitian and Latin American Catholics, many refugees from civil strife and poverty in their homelands, settled in New Cassell, a neighborhood also served by St. Brigid's Parish.  In response to the growing Catholic population, the Diocese of Rockville Centre made a decision that would have a negative impact on the finances of St. Brigid's Parish.  On June 17, 1987, the Carle Place Chapel was re-dedicated as Our Lady of Hope Parish Church.  When the split was made, the contributions to St. Brigid's Parish decreased significantly.  As it turned out, the people in the newly formed parish contributed a disproportionately high percentage of revenue to St. Brigid's Parish.  St. Brigid's Parish has had financial struggles to one degree or another since the split occurred twenty years ago.  Financial constraints trickled down into the parish school.  It was not unusual for then principal, Sister Carlann, to go without basic resources for the running of the school. 

 

Declining enrollment in Catholic Schools throughout the Diocese prompted Rockville Centre Bishop John McGann to appoint a committee in 1988 to study elementary schools. The committee and report became known as the Action Committee for Catholic Education (ACCE).  In 1990 Bishop McGann accepted the ACCE report, which made significant points including:

  • Parishes generally were unable to subsidize schools on their own.
  • All parishes would help support Catholic Schools.
  • The concept of the Catholic regionally based elementary school, in most cases, would generally supersede the concept of parish-based elementary schools.
  • The Diocese would share in supporting Catholic schools with an annual $1M grant.

 

In 1989, Fr. Francis X. Gaeta became pastor of St. Brigid's Parish.  His goals as pastor included stabilizing parish finances and evaluating the long-term viability of the school.  A decision was made to make a change in school leadership.  Fr. Gaeta hired Mrs. Christine Lombardi to begin as principal in September 1991.  She had many years of experience in public schools, retiring as an assistant superintendent for pupil personnel services.  Fr. Gaeta charged the school parents with an annual fundraising goal of $100,000.  The parents accepted the challenge.  He pledged to support the school with an annual subsidy of $215,000, an amount 43% higher than recommended by diocesan guidelines based on parish revenue. School began with an enrollment of 416 children staffed by 23 lay teachers and 2 School Sisters of Notre Dame.  For the first time in 72 years, St. Brigid did not have a SSND as principal.  At the end of that school year, the parent group met their fundraising goal, and Mrs. Lombardi advised Fr. Gaeta that the school was "worth saving." 

 

The school leadership was aware that regional schools were eligible to apply for Diocesan financial support through a grant program.  The process to regionalize the school began.  Fr. Francis Midura, the pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish, agreed to join St. Brigid's Parish in supporting and sponsoring the school.  After approval from the diocese, the school opened in 1995 as St. Brigid/Our Lady of Hope Regional School.  The composition of the school board would now include the pastor and three members of St. Brigid's Parish, and the pastor and two members of Our Lady of Hope Parish.  The school would also receive an annual subsidy of approximately $70,000 from Our Lady of Hope Parish. 

 

Mrs. Lombardi was now able to apply for a Diocesan Support Grant.  The grant proposal was accepted and the school was awarded Diocesan Mission Status, due in large measure to the school's diverse student body.  The school would be one of three regional schools that would receive financial support from the Diocese.  The original grant was in the amount of $100,000.00 per year for three years.  The amount has varied from year to year.  The amount for the 2006/2007 school year was $160,000.00.

 

In her ongoing efforts at school improvement, Mrs. Lombardi initiated the self-study process that would eventually lead to the initial accreditation by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools.

 

In the fall of 1996, Mrs. Lombardi announced her intention to retire at the end of the school year.  A search committee comprised of parents, teachers and clergy was formed.  They recommended, and the Diocese approved, the appointment of the school's assistant principal, Mr. Paul Clagnaz as principal beginning September 1997. 

 

The school experienced moderate enrollment gains each of the next five years, reaching 513 students in September 2001.  The most vivid memories of 2001 were the events of September 11th.  It was a beautiful late summer morning.  We came to understand, little by little, what was occurring at the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and the field in Pennsylvania as the morning wore on.  At first we thought it was a terrible accident, then when the second tower was hit, we realized it was a terrorist attack.  Our main priority that day was making sure all of our students had a safe place to go home to that evening.  Quite a number of our parents work in Manhattan, and several in the towers themselves.  Sadly our school lost the father of two young girls that day.  As the nation was going through this tumultuous time, stories were breaking in Boston that would have shake the American Catholic Church to it's very foundation.  The Boston Globe exposed a pattern of priest sex abuse and cover-ups by the institutional church that allegedly involved Cardinal Bernard F. Law.  By December of 2002 cases of abuse and cover-up came to light in Catholic Dioceses from coast to coast and border to border.  In our own Diocese of Rockville Centre accusations were brought against over 40 priests.  Bishop William F. Murphy was also caught in the storm for the role he allegedly played in abuse cases while a high level diocesan official in Boston.  Church leaders have still not completely emerged from the crisis in confidence in their leadership.   The pain and suffering of victims is still raw and unabated despite large financial settlements, most recently out of the Dioceses of Los Angeles and Rockville Centre. 

 

Coincidentally, 2002 also marked the beginning of enrollment declines at our school and in many others in the Diocese.  Concerned with declining enrollments and financial pressures, Bishop William Murphy and Superintendent of Schools Sister Joanne Callahan, appointed a committee to work with a consultant in order to study the issues facing the elementary schools and to make recommendations to Bishop Murphy.  The Catholic Elementary School Study Committee was formed in January 2004. 

 

The Committee created survey instruments that were sent to pastors, parents of students currently attending Catholic Schools, parents of former Catholic School students, and parents of children attending Parish Religious Education programs.  The survey results indicated that there was general consensus that Catholic elementary schools were of value to the Church and community.  The main concerns that parents brought up was affordability, and when compared to public schools, the lack of programs for special needs and gifted children, and academic and extra-curricular offerings in our Catholic Middle Schools.

 

The Study Committee made several recommendations that the Bishop accepted, among them the formation of a Diocesan Education Commission that would deal with developing curricula and educational programs, and the Tomorrow's Hope Foundation that would raise funds for scholarships, technology development, and emergency repairs when health and safety was at risk.  The Foundation and Commission were formed in March 2005.  Our current principal, Mr. Clagnaz was asked to serve on the Elementary School Study Committee, and sits on the board of the Tomorrow's Hope Foundation. 

 

The Tomorrow's Hope Scholarship program is need based.  In the 2007-2008 school year (the second year of the program) over $1.5 million has been committed to partial scholarships to children across the Diocese.  Families attending St. Brigid/Our Lady of Hope Regional School have been awarded $90,000.00 in tuition assistance for the upcoming school year. The new Diocesan initiatives, especially the tuition assistance program, have given us hope for the future.  



[1] St. Brigid's Centennial Journal, (Westbury, NY: 1956), 18-28.

[2] ibid, 29.

[3] ibid, 32-33.