Consolidating Catholic Education: St. Gabriel and St. Thomas

Disappointment has struck an angelically-titled Grays Ferry school, which may merge with a Newbold institution.

By Joseph Myers
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 2 | Posted Jan. 19, 2012

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Kindergartener Lila SaVonne Strand spent Friday afternoon upping her computer expertise in St. Gabriel School’s Center Room. She and her classmates may only have about four months left to enjoy one another’s company.

Photo by Greg Bezanis

The name Gabriel derives from Hebrew and translates as “God is my strength.”

Since Jan. 6, the students and staff at St. Gabriel School, 2917 Dickinson St., have needed as much might as their savior can grant, as the Archdiocese of Philadelphia-appointed Blue Ribbon Commission announced plans to merge the facility with St. Thomas Aquinas, 1719 Morris St., to form a regional school. The devoted advocates of their 104-year-old educational home are hoping today’s appeal before a review committee will help to prolong its Grays Ferry existence.

“Someone could have knocked us over with a feather,” nine-year Principal Sister Noreen Friel said Friday of the commission’s conclusions.

Kindergarten teacher Michelle Sumner has spent her entire 34-year professional career as a member of the St. Gabriel clan. The graduate of Epiphany of Our Lord, 1248 Jackson St. — a spot scheduled to merge with Holy Spirit, 1845 Hartranft St.; Our Lady of Mount Carmel, 2329 S. Third St.; Sacred Heart of Jesus, 1329 E. Moyamensing Ave.; and St. Richard, 1826 Pollock St., at the former Stella Maris site, 814 Bigler St. — hopes implementation plans end up being for naught.

“This place is a beacon, a melting pot,” the resident of the 1200 block of Durfor Street said as her 26 charges enjoyed the Center Room, a space abounding in learning aids such as board games, computers and musical instruments.

Sumner joined St. Gabriel immediately after graduating from Temple University, believing she would put in a year at the Catholic locale. The lure of public schools’ lucrative paychecks, however, proved powerless against the idea of molding youngsters to be upstanding faith-filled individuals.

“Catholic schools exist, first and foremost, to form believing Catholic Christians; people of the Gospel; people of justice, mercy and charity,” Archbishop Charles J. Chaput said in a release.

Sumner, who estimates she has instructed 2,000 students, sides with him but clashes with his authorizing St. Gabriel’s inclusion on the closings list, which also affects 1,700 teachers.

“Shuttering St. Gabriel School would ensure the loss of a stable and religious influence on so many lives,” Sumner said of the threat to her beloved location. “Parents have told me, and I agree, this school is the hope for the future.”


St. Gabriel has consistently welcomed about 200 students each year, but that could not keep the institution from joining 44 other elementary and four high schools selected to close. Its 201 pupils are among elementary learners who must contemplate the prospects of parting with friends and teachers, as the 17-member body deemed after a year of analysis that decreasing rosters and skyrocketing subsidies cannot become Catholic education’s future.

Established through then-Archbishop Cardinal Justin Rigali, the group hopes to cease exoduses from parochial schools that have dwindled archdiocesan enrollment by 35,245 since 2001. Averaging $319,162 per school over the same period, subsidies have crippled sites, too. St. Gabriel, filled 48 percent to capacity, received a $259,216 subsidy from the parish in 2009-10, the last term for which the report includes figures, and the parish dealt with a $381,779 deficit during the same stretch.

As one of nine affected local grade schools, St. Gabriel desires to have its status as a Grays Ferry mainstay act as counter evidence to the decision to send its students 1.4 miles away to Newbold’s St. Thomas. St. Gabriel’s Rev. John Zagarella has teamed with St. Thomas’ Monsignor Hugh Shields to discuss implementation strategies for their proposed merger, which the Archdiocese projects will educate 412 students. Shields and school officials, who assist 206 attendees, declined to comment. Filled 55 percent to capacity, their facility enjoyed a $17,869 surplus in ’09-10, with the parish $63,244 to the good.

“The children feel as if their family is being pulled apart,” Friel, who also led Annunciation B.V.M., 1148 Wharton St., a site slated to unite with St. Nicholas of Tolentine, 913 Pierce St., said.

Though St. Gabriel has more than the 200-student count the Archdiocese uses to gauge a school’s future, the commission deemed it and 11 other schools with similar enrollment “challenged,” according to its report.

“No family can run on nostalgia and red ink,” Chaput said. “... And so it is with the church. We have a moral duty to use our resources wisely, not just in education, but in every aspect of our life as a believing community.”

Last year’s total archdiocesan enrollment slumped to 68,070, similar to the 1911 figure, according to the report. The 1959-60 school year included 271,088 enrollees, the most ever, yet rising tuition, employing lay teachers instead of religious personnel and competing against charter schools for bodies have factored into reduced rosters.

To maintain who remains, the commission aims to form a governance model to assist schools’ management and to bolster opportunities for public school students who venture to parishes for sacraments and faith formation lessons. The kindergarteners displayed great knowledge of their faith’s tenets, as Sumner led them in reciting reasons that distinguish their school from others.

Answers included strong friendships, Sumner’s influence and gratitude for one another. Having just completed a lesson on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., they addressed dreams and their desire to have their families and teachers remain together. Sumner fears many families will abandon the neighborhood if the school closes, a belief she also deems a likely community crusher. The children launched into “This Little Light of Mine” and demonstrated a sign language version of “You Are My Sunshine.”

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Comments 1 - 2 of 2
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1. Sister John Dolores said... on Jan 20, 2012 at 11:10AM

“Please accept St. Gabriel's appeal”

Report Violation

2. Coach Brain Kelly said... on Jan 20, 2012 at 05:25PM

“We are St Gabes!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”


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