Feeling of warmth envelops Horseheads Catholic school - Catholic Courier
Students wearing Santa hats pose in front of Christmas displays.

Roman Quinn (left) and Michael Becker, sixth-graders at St. Mary Our Mother School in Horseheads, pose in front of their Christmas Around the World displays Dec. 15 in the school gymnasium. (Courier photo by Mike Latona)

Feeling of warmth envelops Horseheads Catholic school

HORSEHEADS — The positive vibes flowing through St. Mary Our Mother School practically greet people at the doorway, according to Heather Bill.

“It’s such a family feeling,” remarked Bill, the school’s third-year principal, saying this sentiment is shared by teachers, staff, students and parents.

“When you enter our office, you have the warmest welcome ever, and you know your child is taken care of,” she said. “Every single day, we treat them like they’re our own.”

Bill speaks from experience. She’s a graduate of St. Mary Our Mother, and also logged 12 years there as a teacher before becoming principal in 2021.

In recent years, the school has enjoyed a solid spike in enrollment. St. Mary Our Mother currently has 177 boys and girls in prekindergarten through sixth grade — a rise of 31 students from 2022-23, and 41 from 2021-22. Colleen Meehan, a sixth-grade teacher, said St. Mary Our Mother’s close-knit environment makes it a popular educational choice.

“It’s hard to explain it until you’re in it,” said Meehan, who has taught at the school since 2016. “There’s nothing like St. Mary Our Mother.”

Strong academics, faith anchor Horseheads Catholic school

The school, located at 811 Westlake St., was established in 1959 and staffed by the Sisters of St. Joseph. It’s located on the property of St. Mary Our Mother Church, not far from the busy Interstate 86/New York Route 14 interchange in Chemung County.

Patricia Madison, who has taught at St. Mary Our Mother for more than 30 years, cited high academic standards and a strong Catholic identity as foundations for the school’s success.

“It’s a very nice feeling that you can provide a service that public schools cannot, by bringing Jesus into the classroom,” said Madison, a prekindergarten teacher. She added that non-Catholic students also enjoy the faith-based education.

“We know who we are, and we’re proud of who we are,” stated Bill, whose own children Bryce, a fourth-grader, and Emma, a kindergartner, attend St. Mary Our Mother as well.

Samuel Minier, a second-grader from Big Flats, said he likes St. Mary Our Mother “because it helps me to get closer to Jesus and God,” adding that he enjoys the school’s many activities and its strong focus on community service.

“It’s fun here, and we get to learn about Jesus and Mary and God,” added Teja Nair, a first-grader from Horseheads.

Bill observed that several of her current students and families started out in Catholic schools, then tried public schools before opting for St. Mary Our Mother and what she calls the “priceless” experience of Catholic education.

“They didn’t have that feel (elsewhere) they always longed for,” Bill said. “They thought they could could get by without it and found they couldn’t.”

School draws from large portion of Southern Tier

St. Mary Our Mother’s ongoing presence has become more vital following the closing of Corning’s All Saints Academy in 2022 and Elmira’s Holy Family School in 2023 due to low enrollment. Bill said that a number of youths — particularly from Holy Family — have since relocated to St. Mary Our Mother.

Gianna Cleary, who attended Holy Family, said she felt “really sad” when the school closed. However, the Pine City resident toured St. Mary Our Mother and found students and staff to be very welcoming. Now a fifth-grader there, Gianna has made several new friends, noting that “we didn’t have many girls last year (at Holy Family).” In addition, her mother, Stephanie Pelkey, is a fourth-grade teacher at St. Mary Our Mother, having also come over from Holy Family.

St. Mary Our Mother is now the lone diocesan Catholic elementary school across a large chunk of the Southern Tier — whereas as recently as 12 years ago, there were a total of six such schools operating in Chemung, Tompkins, Tioga and Steuben counties. However, Bill said she anticipates continued growth for St. Mary Our Mother, noting that families call regularly to schedule tours.

Bill acknowledged that it’s vital for St. Mary Our Mother — which draws students from several surrounding counties, including northern Pennsylvania — to remain strong so that Catholic education can continue in the Tier. She noted that Father Christopher Linsler, pastor of St. Mary Our Mother Parish, is a staunch supporter of the school. She added that the school also has a solid working relationship with Elmira Notre Dame High School, where many students from St. Mary Our Mother continue their Catholic education.

Bill said she’s seen positive results from publicizing St. Mary Our Mother, particularly through social media. She and Meehan noted that favorable word of mouth has paid off as well.

“Our families are our best marketing tool,” Meehan said.

Tags: Catholic Schools, Chemung County News
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