It was a half-century ago that Bishop James E. Kearney, speaking at Notre Dame High School’s dedication Mass, lauded the people of Elmira “for having made this wonderful dream” along with the Sisters of Mercy.
The dream continued in full force on Sept. 11, as an overflow crowd of more than 600 jammed Notre Dame’s auditorium — the same room where Bishop Kearney had presided — for a 50th-anniversary liturgy celebrated by Bishop Matthew H. Clark. Many folks from Notre Dame’s illustrious past attended, including several from the school’s very beginning. One such person is Mercy Sister Mary Edwina Butler, an original faculty member, who on Sept. 11 directed an alumni musical group.
“It was thrilling. We had a choir made up of many of the graduates from the 50 years, and even some from Elmira Catholic High,” Sister Butler said, referring to the school that preceded Notre Dame.
Also present was Bob Agan, a 1956 graduate, who was the school’s first class president and went on to become chief executive officer of Hardinge Inc.
“It was a beautiful Mass. The bishop did a wonderful job and it was great to be there with so many people from the past,” said Agan, who is now retired and continues to be an active supporter of various Notre Dame programs. He and his wife Sharon have eight children, all of whom are Notre Dame graduates, and three of their grandchildren currently attend the school.
Coeducational Catholic high-school education has existed in Elmira since 1930, when Elmira Catholic High began occupying space at Ss. Peter and Paul School before moving to St. Patrick’s School two years later. Growing demand required the construction of a high-school building, and Notre Dame opened in 1955 at its present site at 1400 Maple Ave.
The structure was realized through a successful regional fundraising drive as well as a substantial investment by the Sisters of Mercy of Rochester, who assumed the school’s initial financial and operational responsibilities. At that time, the sisters pledged that Notre Dame “was to be the best school ever,” noted Mercy Sister Mary Walter Hickey, who has served as Notre Dame’s principal the past 30 years.
Sister Butler, who taught music and French at Notre Dame, said many sisters came from Rochester where they had taught in Catholic high schools.
“It was a wonderful staff, really. We brought all that experience to a whole new location … it was a special privilege to come to a brand-new building and establish brand-new traditions,” said Sister Butler, adding that she was especially excited about the school because she’s a native Elmiran. The bulk of her educational ministry has been spent at Notre Dame; she retired in 1989 and continues to tutor English there.
A spacious athletic stadium was built in the early 1960s, and the present convent — located adjacent to the school — was added in the mid-1960s. In the late 1980s the school incorporated separately from the Sisters of Mercy with a board of trustees, with the Mercy order continuing to serve as sponsor.
Notre Dame is the only Catholic high school in the Southern Tier, drawing from such communities as Corning, Ithaca and Watkins Glen, as well as several towns in the Northern Tier of Pennsylvania. School enrollment has fluctuated over the years, but Sister Hickey said this year’s figure of 341 is “the exact same number as when we opened the school 50 years ago.” This number is impressive when weighed against the general decline in Catholic-school enrollment over the past several years.
“We were as low as 270, but we’re having a rebirth — as much as possible in this day and age, when demographics are against us,” Sister Hickey said. “I think people are looking for a quality education where you can find values — an excellent program in a faith environment.”
“In our community there’s a need for a parochial school, and people recognize that it serves a wonderful purpose,” said Agan, a parishioner of Our Lady of Lourdes. “I have always found Notre Dame to be a school that supports family values that we try to raise our children with. It has, in my opinion, done a great job at that.”
The school is sailing into its next half-century on a high note, thanks to the brand-new Sister Mary Carmella Coene Science Wing, which Bishop Clark dedicated at the end of the Sept. 11 Mass. Sister Coene, a 96-year-old Sister of Mercy, was on hand for the ceremony. She has served the school throughout its entire history as a teacher, department head and tutor.
The science wing was funded through the school’s Legacy of Values drive. Begun in 2001, the capital campaign is the largest expansion and renovation initiative in school history. It has also included upgrades of locker-room facilities and several areas related to health and safety, and will make possible a cafeteria expansion as well as monies toward an endowment fund for scholarships and financial aid.
These recent improvements, along with the school’s golden jubilee, give Sister Hickey plenty of reason to approach the upcoming years with hope and enthusiasm.
“We have a legacy, and as we look to the future, we have to promise to continue that tradition of excellence that was begun 50 years ago. It takes a lot of hard work and a lot of people working together — and wonderful, wonderful kids,” she said.
Added Agan: “I am a big Notre Dame supporter and believe in Catholic education. I am so happy the school is there for my grandchildren now.”