Our Lady of Mercy Regional School staff face uncertain future

06/22/2018 5:58 AM |

The white walls were bare in the hallways at Our Lady of Mercy Regional School Monday morning. 

On a single bulletin board, spelled out in yellow lettering, was a message: “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.”

Boxes filled up one room and inside a pre-K classroom across the hall, the cubbies were empty.

The signs of a school year winding down were all around. But come fall, for the first time in more than 60 years, there will no revival at the small Catholic school in Cutchogue.

On Friday, students and teachers will say goodbye to the school for good. 

“It’s very sad,” principal Alexandra Conlan said. “It’s a place that’s been on the North Fork for a long time … so it’s very sad that as things change, Our Lady of Mercy will not have a place in the changes taking place in the North Fork community.”

The Diocese of Rockville Centre announced in March that it would shutter the Cutchogue elementary school and consolidate it with Riverhead’s St. Isidore School to form one Catholic elementary school to be named St. John Paul II Regional School. The diocese also will close Bishop McGann-Mercy High School, which held its final commencement ceremony June 6. 

The new elementary school will occupy the St. Isidore building on Marcy Avenue in Riverhead. It will offer classes for students in nursery school through 8th grade.

The future of the Cutchogue school building is unknown. No decision has yet been made, Sean Dolan, director of communications for the diocese, said in an email. 

Students have the option to attend the new Catholic school, about 14 miles farther west, or their local public school. For teachers and staff, however, the transition isn’t as straightforward.

As far as Ms. Conlan is aware, none of the 17 staff members at the pre-K through grade 6 school have secured new jobs for the 2018-19 school year. Those interested in working at St. John Paul II Regional School must apply for positions there. Ms. Conlan herself is currently interviewing for new positions. She said they’ve remained focused on supporting the students during these last few months.

“I give a lot of credit to my teachers,” she said. “This is a student-centered environment, so we wanted to make sure the students received the same amount of support that they always have. Academically and everything else we’ve been doing really well. I give them a lot of credit because, emotionally, it’s been pretty difficult.”

Our Lady of Mercy Regional School principal Alexandra Conlan. (Nicole Smith photo)

The faculty and administration have maintained traditions — such as the pre-K, kindergarten and fifth-grade moving-up ceremonies — to ease the stress the transition and school closure may cause some students.

Gina Cavilla-McGrail of Southold didn’t attend Our Lady of Mercy herself, but many of her family members did, and she called the closing of the school heartbreaking, as it’s been such a benefit to the community and the hundreds of children who have attended over the years.

“Our Lady of Mercy [closing] will be real loss to our community,” she said. “I went to the sixth-grade graduation and, at the end, one student spoke about Our Lady of Mercy and there wasn’t a dry eye in church. [It was] very emotional for many of us.”

The diocese cited rising costs and declining enrollment as reasons behind its decision to close Our Lady of Mercy. 

Ms. Conlan, who has been at the school four years, said enrollment has been dwindling for the last decade. This year the elementary school, which has one class per grade, averaged 10 students per class. Ms. Conlan said that after St. Agnes in Greenport closed, many of its students transferred to Our Lady of Mercy and classes averaged about 15 students.

Enrollment for John Paul II Regional school is open and ongoing and teachers from both Our Lady of Mercy and St. Isidore can apply for teaching positions at the new school, Mr. Dolan said. 

“I can say that at this time we have one class per grade for each grade from nursery through grade eight,” Mr. Dolan said. “We can expand to two classes if and when a second class is needed. St. John Paul II Regional will have a full complement of teachers when it opens its doors in September.”

At McGann-Mercy High School, parents upset over the school closing have banded together to try and establish an independent Catholic high school at the Riverhead campus. 

Ms. Conlan said parents of Our Lady of Mercy students shared a similar sadness at the news of its closing, but are more accepting of the circumstances. 

“Everybody knew that enrollment was very low,” she said. “A lot of them are sad, but of course you need to know where your child is going in September and you need to make a decision. I feel that although the decisions have been very difficult for our parents, once that decision has been made there’s been some kind of acceptance. It’s very different from a high school. A high school is an experience for a teenager.”

Although her time at Our Lady of Mercy is coming to an end, Ms. Conlan said she’s grateful for her years there.

“For me it’s been a great experience,” she said. “It’s been a lot of work, and this has been very sad, but I’ve certainly enjoyed my experience here at Our Lady of Mercy.”

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Photo caption: The pre-K classroom at Our Lady of Mercy Regional School Monday morning, only four days before the final day of classes at the Cutchogue elementary school. (Nicole Smith photo) 

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