Owego school celebrates 150 years - Catholic Courier

Owego school celebrates 150 years

What puts Owego’s St. Patrick School in a category all its own? According to Paula Smith, the signs are evident immediately upon entering the converted mansion students call home.

"It’s a warm family feeling. Someone greets you and it’s always in the most friendly of terms," said Smith, the first-year principal. "There is something very, very special about this school — the history, the families, the dedication of the staff and the most wonderful, beautiful children."

Those intangibles are on display front and center in 2009, as St. Patrick celebrates its 150th year in Tioga County. The school’s first major sesquicentennial event was to occur during Catholic Schools Week on Friday, Jan. 30, when Bishop Matthew H. Clark was scheduled to celebrate an 11 a.m. Mass. The event also was to feature a luncheon, presentation of the annual McAuley Award and tours of the school. In addition, St. Patrick will acknowledge its 150th anniversary on May 16 with a 5:30 p.m. Mass and social gathering. Smith noted that several smaller events, such as alumni teas, open houses and tours, will be staged over the next several months as well.

One highlight of the school tour is the 150th-anniversary display room, consisting of a photo timeline in the entryway and several wall panels that coordinate to the timeline. The display depicts a school that was founded in 1859, 17 years after St. Patrick Parish opened.

The school was staffed by lay teachers for its first 10 years, until several Sisters of Mercy arrived in Owego on Jan. 29, 1869. That historic event was to be noted at the Jan. 30 Mass — one day after the 140th anniversary of the sisters’ arrival. The McAuley Award given that day honors a local resident whose involvement in church and community exemplifies the traits of Sister Catherine McAuley, founder of the Mercy order.

St. Patrick School quickly became successful in its early years, increasing its enrollment to more than 100 students. As more Sisters of Mercy came on board, the school spawned an academy focusing on the arts and music; a night school for adults; and an orphan asylum.

For many years St. Patrick operated in a wooden four-classroom building. In 1950 it moved into the former Stanbrough mansion, located directly behind St. Patrick Church, and was redesigned to fit its unique architectural setting. A six-classroom addition opened in 1967.

As has been the case with Catholic schools all over the Rochester Diocese, recent decades have seen a decrease in both enrollment and availability of women religious to staff the faculty. The Mercy sisters’ 130-year tenure at St. Patrick ended in 1999, and the school is once again completely staffed by lay teachers.

Last year, rising costs and declining enrollment put St. Patrick at risk of failing to reach its sesquicentennial year. Yet the school, which offers grades prekindergarten through 5, narrowly met its registration quota of 56 students in K-5. Thus, the school not only survived to celebrate its big anniversary, but Smith is confident that the cloud is lifting for Tioga County’s sole Catholic school as it strives toward higher enrollment and firmer footing beyond 2008-09.

"If you could see the new energy and feel the energy — we’re here, we’re alive and we’re well," said Smith who is in her third year at St. Patrick (she also teaches fifth grade).

She said the school has maintained its strong adherence to high values and educational standards, noting that every class has a SMART Board and projector, and that Spanish and Latin are offered in addition to core academic subjects. She added that the Blessed Trinity/St. Patrick parish staff has become more involved, and that she’s seeking a deeper connection with the school’s alumni.

Perhaps the best gauge of St. Patrick’s continuing success lies in the sentiments expressed by Jessica Shuey, a fifth-grader, and Casey Carlson, a third-grader.

"I love my class. We’re all close to each other, like a family," Jessica said, adding that she thrives on the school’s faith-based environment: "I can learn about my religion — not only on Sundays, but every day."

"I think it’s special because you get to show your faith. In a public school, they don’t really get to talk about Christ," agreed Casey, who also said he likes his principal, teacher and friends at St. Patrick: "I feel very lucky," he stated.

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