• Luke Azatassou (left) and RyJohn Dixon, second-graders at Rochester’s St. Boniface School, had the chance to chat with Peggy Wegman during her May 17 visit to the school. Wegman and her late husband, Robert B. Wegman, donated millions of dollars to diocesan Catholic schools.
    Luke Azatassou (left) and RyJohn Dixon, second-graders at Rochester’s St. Boniface School, had the chance to chat with Peggy Wegman during her May 17 visit to the school. Wegman and her late husband, Robert B. Wegman, donated millions of dollars to diocesan Catholic schools.

Couple's gifts uplifted schools

By Rob Cullivan/Catholic Courier    |    12.20.2009
Category: Back to School


Earlier this year, Joey Butcher confided to his mother that he was upset about the death of someone he had met at school.

"He was such a nice friend," said Joey, who will be attending first grade at Rochester's Holy Family School this fall.

The friend whose passing Joey mourned was grocery magnate Robert B. Wegman, who died in April at the age of 87.

Along with his wife, Peggy, Wegman donated millions of dollars to diocesan Catholic schools, including Holy Family. Wegman was chairman of Wegmans Food Markets Inc., a supermarket chain operating in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia and Maryland.

Renowned philanthropists, the Wegmans have given more money to diocesan schools than have any other donors in the system's history. Since 1993 alone, the couple gave $42.8 million in support of Rochester inner-city Catholic schools known collectively in the Wegmans' honor as the WIN Schools -- Corpus Christi at Blessed Sacrament, Cathedral at Holy Rosary, St. Andrew, St. Boniface, Holy Family and St. Monica.

The Wegmans also have supported Aquinas Institute and McQuaid Jesuit High School in Rochester; Our Lady of Mercy High School in Brighton; and St. John Fisher College in Pittsford.

Joey's mother, Annie Butcher, said she and her husband, Jason, couldn't afford to send Joey and his brother, Alex, to Holy Family without the financial support provided through the WIN program. A 1992 graduate of Holy Family herself, Butcher said she wanted her boys to have the same benefits she gained at her alma mater.

"The teachers are awesome," she said. "They work well with the students."

Peggy Wegman said her late husband supported the WIN schools for a number of reasons, including a desire to fully prepare inner-city children for the workplace.

"He felt that the care that we can give in our schools is terribly important," she said.

The families and the schools that benefited from the Wegmans' largesse are grateful, noted Kathy Dougherty, principal of Cathedral at Holy Rosary.

"The Wegman funding has helped to stabilize our school," she said. "Actually, without the funding, none of our parents would be able to afford Catholic education."

That point was echoed by Sister of St. Joseph Eileen Daly, who retired July 14 after serving 29 years as principal of Corpus Christi.

"The WIN schools would not be here today if it were not for the generosity of the Wegmans," she said.

WIN schools

On June 16, Peggy Wegman made one last round of her ongoing visits to the WIN schools throughout the school year. On this day, she visited Holy Family, where Principal Mary Ellen Wagner told Wegman that the school currently enrolls 296 children. The two women had a brief discussion about the school, and then Wegman went from classroom to classroom. The students needed no introductions when she entered their classrooms.

"Good morning, Mrs. Wegman," said a group of second-graders. It was a scene repeated in classroom after classroom. Wagner later noted that almost every family at the school is receiving tuition assistance. The Wegmans also have helped the school obtain computers, she said, and helped in other areas.

Other WIN schools offer similar stories about the Wegmans' generosity. At St. Andrew on a Saturday a couple of years ago, Wegmans' corporate staff helped paint the school, according to Tracy Nadler, principal. Meanwhile, Peggy Wegman has become a familiar face at the school, she added.

"Peggy's visits invigorate all of us," Nadler said. "The teachers and children look forward to seeing her. It has been especially heartwarming when she comes to an event like our Passion Pageant or when her visit has coincided with a liturgy."

Maureen and Robert Callaghan are among the St. Andrew parents who have received financial aid from the Wegmans to send their children to the school. Their son Roy will be in the fifth grade this fall, and their other son, Christopher, will be in the sixth grade. Both boys are adopted. Meanwhile, their foster child, Cheyenne, will attend second grade, Maureen added. She noted that Christopher, in particular, had experienced difficulties in a crowded public school, but has thrived since switching to St. Andrew four years ago.

"The smaller classes, especially for Christopher, are terrific," she said. "(The teachers) are very good about working with him."

That point was seconded by Wegman herself.

"One of the advantages of our school system is we're small, and the kids get the attention they need," she said.

The attention Wegman herself showers on the children also is important, according to Cathedral School at Holy Rosary's Dougherty.

"Our children don't often have a sense that anyone really cares for them outside of their family, so this is hopefully a knowledge that will spur them on to want to do for others also," she said.

Alma maters

Mercedes Mohammed, who will be a senior at Aquinas this fall, runs indoor and outdoor track for her school, and said she used to have to train off campus. She said that changed, however, thanks to Wegman, who gave $10 million to enable his high-school alma mater to upgrade its facilities and build a fine-arts center and sports complex.

"We really don't have to go off campus," Mercedes said, noting she can train on the track at the Wegmans Sports Complex, which opened in September 2005. The complex features a 2,000-seat, lighted stadium with Astroplay artificial surface; a full-size, all-weather track; practice fields; and tennis courts.

The Wegmans also have supported McQuaid's Xavier Scholars program, which provides scholarships to McQuaid for five WIN-school graduates, according to Francine Patella Ryan, McQuaid's spokeswoman. Ryan said Peggy Wegman also hosts a luncheon each May for the Xavier Scholars and their families, as well as for diocesan, WIN and McQuaid schools officials.

The Wegmans also have also lent a hand to Mercy, from which Peggy graduated, according to Ginny Lenyk, the school's spokeswoman. Lenyk noted that the Wegmans gave $1 million to Mercy's capital campaign in 2001 with the condition that other donors match it, which they did. She added that the Wegmans also have financed scholarships for Mercy students, and that Peggy Wegman supports the school's summer camp and mentoring program.

Alysia Montante, who will graduate Mercy in 2011, credited the Wegmans for making it possible for her to attend Mercy.

"My parents and everyone I know are always telling me how Mercy will take me far in life, and I owe it all to the Wegman family," she said. "When I came to Mercy, I immediately felt like I was a part of something. Mercy felt like a big family, and it felt good to be a part of it."

Fisher's future

Meanwhile, the campus of St. John Fisher College is being dramatically transformed through two major donations from Robert Wegman -- $8 million to fund a nursing school and $5 million to create a pharmacy school.

Fisher has had a department of nursing since 1989, according to Diane Cooney Miner, dean of the Wegmans School of Nursing, which was established earlier this year.

Wegman's gift allowed the college to almost quadruple the size of its nursing program, she said, noting that over the next five years, the nursing school expects to award 1,103 bachelor's degrees and 438 master's degrees.

The college will break ground in October on a new 40,000-square-foot building to house the school, she said, noting that the school eventually will add a doctorate program to its bachelor's and master's programs.

"Mr. Wegman's gift has just allowed us to do so much more work and to educate so many more people," Miner said.

Last January, when Wegman's gift to Fisher's nursing program was announced, Wegman said he thought it was important to support the training of nurses.

"I am concerned about the future of health care, particularly the cost, and believe that addressing the nursing shortage is an important goal," he said at the time.

He and Miner noted that Fisher graduates tend to stay in the Rochester area, which meant the donation also was an investment in the Rochester community.

This fall, 55 students will enter the inaugural class of the Wegmans School of Pharmacy at Fisher, according to Scott Swigart, the school's dean. The school will be housed in a new 40,000-square-foot building and will offer doctor of pharmacy degrees, he added. Swigart noted that the school will help alleviate the shortage of pharmacists in the area.

"If you look at the demographics of the western New York area, you will find a slightly higher than average elderly population," Swigart added. "You have the largest group of people ever -- baby boomers -- that just turned 60 and will soon be over 65 and increasing the prescription demand. That increased demand will worsen the pharmacist shortage in western New York as well as most everywhere."

Interestingly, one could see the Wegmans' donations to Fisher as completing a circle of giving, since Fisher nursing students have provided health screenings at WIN schools, according to Miner. She added that she considers the Wegmans' donations to be examples of what every person can do to benefit their community, no matter what their means.

"All of us have an obligation as members of the community to be concerned about others and to use our skills and resources to help others," she said.

 

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