The school at 1010 Davis St. was established more than a century ago for the children of Elmira’s Polish Catholics. In recent decades it made its mark as a consolidated middle school for Catholics citywide, creating fond memories for such folks as Karen Jennings.
“My own children came through here. It has always been the most welcoming and warm and supportive place for those ‘in-between’ kids to grow. They come in as kids and leave as cool teenagers,” remarked Jennings, science teacher and activities coordinator at Holy Family Middle School, where she has worked for the past 13 years.
Special times on Davis Street have ended with the closing of Holy Family Middle School at the end of the 2011-12 school year due to low enrollment. Middle-school Catholic education will instead carry on nearby, with Holy Family Elementary School adding a sixth grade beginning this fall and Notre Dame High School offering a new program for seventh- and eighth-graders.
Holy Family Middle School’s roots date back to 1903, when the fledgling St. Casimir Parish founded a school for the many Polish immigrant families who had settled in the area. A new school was dedicated in 1930, with the building’s cornerstone reading “Szkola Parafialna Sw. Kazimierza (St. Casimir Parish School) — 1929.” The school boasted 325 students at the time. Buoyed by the dedication of numerous Sisters of St. Joseph faculty members, St. Casimir’s enrollment peaked at 362 in 1957.
St. Casimir offered kindergarten through eighth grade during its earlier decades. In 1971 it became a K-6 institution via a consolidation with other Elmira Catholic schools. In 1986 it began serving grades 7 and 8 only, with its title changing from St. Casimir to Holy Family Junior High as part of another reconfiguration. In 2009 the building added a sixth grade and was renamed Holy Family Middle School, as the Holy Family system was reduced from three buildings to two.
Jennings noted that offering just three grade levels enabled the school’s faculty and students to more easily connect with each other.
“I think that’s what made it so special,” she said.
Andy Wichtowski, 13, who recently completed seventh grade at Holy Family, agreed with that assessment.
“I knew everybody. You could walk down the hall and say hi to everybody, and you had more contact with the teachers,” he said.
“I love the teachers there,” added Andy’s twin sister, Ally. “They are so nice; they really know what they’re teaching. And we all love school.”
Despite these positive factors, diocesan officials announced in November 2011 that Holy Family would close at the end of 2011-12 when it counted just 85 students in its three grades combined.
The twins said they would have liked to graduate from the middle school in 2013, given that they’d been in the Holy Family system since kindergarten and had some ancestors who attended the school when it was St. Casimir.
“You hate to see all the changes, but it’s happening everywhere,” remarked Andy and Ally’s mother, Melissa.
The good news is that middle-school grades are now available at Catholic schools elsewhere in Elmira. Sixth grade is at Holy Family Elementary School — located in the former St. Mary Southside School — along with its existing prekindergarten through fifth grades. And, Notre Dame High School has added seventh and eighth grades for the first time in its 57-year history.
Sister Mary Walter Hickey, RSM, president of Notre Dame, noted that as of mid-July, 45 incoming seventh-graders and 40 eighth-graders had enrolled there with a cap of 50 for each grade. She said Notre Dame is promoting these grades as a regional junior high, with incoming students traveling from several nearby communities in New York and Pennsylvania as well as Elmira itself.
Although he’s sad his experience with Holy Family Schools came to a premature end, Andy said he’s excited about attending Notre Dame as an eighth-grader because “there are more opportunities for academics and athletics.”
Meanwhile, his sister is thankful that Catholic middle-school education will still be within a short reach. Otherwise, as she put it, “I wouldn’t know where to go.”
According to David Quinn, director of finance and administration for the Elmira parishes and Holy Family Schools, nearly all of Holy Family’s would-be seventh- and eighth-graders for 2012-13 plan to attend the new junior high at Notre Dame. He added that most of the Holy Family Middle School staff has found work elsewhere, saying, “A great many of the current middle-school teachers were hired by Notre Dame.” Jennings, for one, is serving as the coordinator of Notre Dame’s new junior-high program.
Quinn also noted that discussions have begun about the possibility of converting the middle-school building into office space for parishes and community social-ministry organizations.