Auburn Catholic school closes, pandemic amplifies ‘heartbreak’
There were smiles and there were tears June 17 as families drove through the parking lot of St. Joseph School in Auburn one last time.
The school’s teachers and principal stood in a line outside holding signs of support for their students as parents drove past slowly, honking as their children waved through open windows or poked their heads out through their vehicles’ sunroofs.
Similar scenes have played out in school parking lots throughout the nation, as COVID-19 forced schools to close for the year in March and school communities have been unable to gather inside school buildings. This parade was especially poignant for many, however, because St. Joseph School closed permanently in June 2020.
“It’s not the ending that we wanted for the school, but it’s out of our control,” longtime St. Joseph School teacher Denise Short said of the parade.
Back in November, the Diocese of Rochester announced that St. Joseph School would close at the end of the 2019-20 school year due to declining enrollment and financial difficulties. This news was heartbreaking enough to school families, but at the time no one expected students’ time inside St. Joseph School would be cut short by a global pandemic.
“With the COVID shutdown, it was one final heartbreak for all of us, not being able to finish out our final months physically together in the building or have our goodbye picnic,” said Andrea Rizzo-Janish, whose daughter, Anyela, was in second grade and son, Lucca, was in preschool at St. Joseph.
“I definitely didn’t anticipate it ending without seeing the teachers one-on-one and being able to do their last class trip and everything with the kids they grew up with. It was disheartening,” agreed Kelly Ambroggio, whose twin sons were in seventh grade at St. Joseph.
Michael and Steven Ambroggio entered St. Joseph School as 3-year-old preschoolers and have gone there ever since, their mother said. The Ambroggio family had always assumed Michael and Steven would graduate from St. Joseph’s eighth grade in 2021.
“It’s the only (school) building they’ve ever been in, and now they’re in seventh grade and they can’t even graduate from there,” Ambroggio said.
The students in her sons’ class at St. Joseph had bonded and become almost a family of sorts, and it was this family atmosphere that had originally attracted her family to the school 10 years ago, Ambroggio said.
“I wanted them to grow up in a smaller atmosphere, a family-like atmosphere,” she said.
This family atmosphere has been one of the school’s defining characteristics for quite some time, agreed Short, who started working at St. Joseph School 21 years ago. Initially she was a classroom aide, then spent four years teaching preschool. Most recently she taught first grade as well as several special subjects, including art and technology.
Working in a school that educates students from preschool all the way up through eighth grade has been gratifying, she said.
“I’ve seen so many of these students start in pre-K, and I’ve gotten to watch them grow up to be eighth-graders. I’ve seen them go from little babies to teenagers ready to start high school,” Short said.
Short’s own son graduated from St. Joseph School in 2009, and the quality Catholic education he received there helped make him “the awesome young man he is today,” she said. Short herself also went to school in St. Joseph’s building, although at the time it was known as Blessed Trinity School.
The building itself was constructed in 1949 and in 1950 became the new home of St. Alphonsus Parish’s School. In 1973 it became home to Blessed Trinity School, which was formed by merging the parochial schools of St. Alphonsus, Holy Family and Sacred Heart parishes. It became known as St. Joseph School in 1996, when Blessed Trinity merged with the former St. Mary School.
“It was like a pillar in our community,” Ambroggio remarked.
Many people in the community went to the school themselves or sent their own children there, she said. Many parents appreciated the way the education their children received at St. Joseph reinforced the Catholic values and morals they tried to instill in their children at home, Rizzo-Janish said.
Even those who didn’t have a personal connection to the school still valued its role in the Auburn community, Short said. One of St. Joseph’s most visible annual fundraisers, she said, was its Healing Fields of Hopes and Dreams, during which Hoopes Park was filled with hundreds of American flags. This event provided a way for the community to honor veterans on Memorial Day.
The closure of St. Joseph School is a loss to the Auburn community, Ambroggio said.
“It is an end of an era for so many, and it will always hold a special place in all of our hearts,” Rizzo-Janish said.