Ecumenical Nursery School in Southold closing after 45 years


More than four decades of child care will come to an end when the North Fork’s last remaining Ecumenical Nursery School closes its doors later this month.

The program has provided preschool education for children in Southold Town since 1970, but will not reopen after closing for the summer.

After first opening at Mattituck’s Advent Lutheran Church and Cutchogue United Methodist churches, the program expanded to Southold’s First Presbyterian Church in 1984. The Cutchogue location closed about a decade ago, followed by Mattituck last year. Southold, where just seven children are currently enrolled, is the last to go.

Emily Gundersen, who has taught at the Southold location for more than 30 years, attributes the closings to low enrollment.

“We [once] would have two full classes and a waiting list, but now there’s a lack of young families coming into town and being able to afford to stay,” she said.

Teaching aide Cathy Campbell agreed, noting that second-homeowners and retirees moving to the North Fork have reduced demand for everyday child care.

“It’s just sad because it’s the end of an era,” she said.

The teaching structure at Ecumenical Nursery School is different from other places, Ms. Gundersen explained, because children are encouraged to learn through playtime and interaction with classmates.

“After a week of my daughter going here, she was reciting the Pledge of Allegiance when she saw the American flag in a bank,” she said.

The school has been more than a job for Ms. Campbell. It’s also where her daughter attended school decades ago.

“I started here as an aide when my daughter was 3 and going here herself,” she explained. “Now she’s 30 and I’m still here.”

Ms. Campbell isn’t the only one whose family stayed involved with the program after their first child moved on. Ms. Gundersen explained that many families have sent multiple generations through the school.

The Rev. George Summers of Advent Lutheran Church has been on the board of the school since its inception. He credits Sonja Topalian with starting the program in Mattituck at a time when preschools were hard to find on the North Fork.

“The school grew and changed as churches opted in and out,” the Rev. Summers said in a statement. “Most recently, Advent Lutheran Church and Southold Presbyterian Church were the sole sponsors. The churches and the parents provided the leadership through a voluntary board.”

He said the emergence of universal pre-K has made it challenging to maintain the school.

“We all felt we met a need, and did it well and at low cost, largely with voluntary leadership and minimally paid staff, but now that need is being met elsewhere,” he said. “We thank everyone who helped and we salute all our graduates, many of whom are doctors, lawyers and teachers themselves.”

Photo: Ecumenical Nursery School student Sophia and teaching aide Liz Gordon water bean seedlings last Monday. The Southold preschool is slated to close this month. (Credit: Sara Schabe)

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