History of the School
St. Christopher's School Three Quarters of a Century and Going Strong
Shortly after 8 o'clock on school mornings, buses rumble up Gale Avenue and pull into the parking lot behind Saint Christopher's School. Children from Baldwin, Freeport, Oceanside and other nearby communities climb down the steps and head to the paved area along Pershing Boulevard. Some arrive on foot; others students are dropped off by their parents. They chat and play until 8:45 when the old fashioned school hand bell is rung, and another day begins for the children who attend Saint Christopher's School.
The present building has grown beyond the original eight class rooms and auditorium. There's a library, cafeteria, and 16 additional classrooms. For almost 75 years children have been learning the four "R's" at Saint Christopher's school; reading, 'riting, 'rithmatic and religion.
The history of the school goes hand in hand with that of the church, and the community of Baldwin. In the late 1800's, Baldwin was a rural area populated by mostly farmers and fishermen. Being close to the city, the area also became a popular resort. Catholics in Baldwin first attended mass at Our Lady of Loretto in Hempstead, and after 1900 the 70 catholic families in Baldwin were divided between Our Holy Redeemer in Freeport and what is now Saint Agnes Cathedral in Rockville Centre. That changed in 1912 when a committee of Baldwin Catholics petitioned Bishop Charles McDonnell of the Diocese of Brooklyn for permission to build a church. Bishop McDonnell instructed Father Charles Logue, the pastor of Our Holy Redeemer to establish a mission church in Baldwin. Merrick Road was a major route from Jamaica to Montauk Point. Being an avid motorist with a devotion to Saint Christopher, the patron saint of travelers, Bishop McDonnell called the mission Saint Christopher's.
The first masses were held in the wooden frame firehouse on Grand Avenue, than an auditorium on Merrick Road near Park Avenue. It was above a car garage owned by the husband of the actress Sophie Tucker.
The Catholic population of Baldwin continued to grow, so in 1915 Bishop McDonnell directed Father John McGoldrick to establish Saint Christopher's church, and appointed him the first pastor. The first land purchased where Mass was held is the current site of the Fullerton Funeral Home.
Bishop McDonnell had bought land at the corner of Gale Avenue and Merrick Road in 1912 for $5,000.00. This was to be the future site of Saint Christopher's Church. Congressman George Loft a local resident (he owned the land now Loft's estates) pledged another $5,000.00 for the building of the church, if matching funds were raised. And they were.
On March 18, 1917, ground was broken for what would become the Shrine Church of Saint Christopher in the United States. The original structure was built of locally available stone called Hudson River Bottom. It was taken from the Milburn Reservoir in Rockville Centre, which was owned by the Brooklyn Water Works, but not being used. Using the locally available material saved the parish thousands in construction costs.
Father McGoldrick had the foresight to anticipate the desire for a Catholic school, and bought the land next to the church on Merrick Road which extended to Pershing Boulevard. The house on the property was used as a second rectory, until another house with land was purchased across the street on the south side of Merrick Road. That became the third rectory and later the first convent for the Sisters of Saint Joseph.
The way was now clear for a school to be built!
Architect William Boegel was hired in 1924, and told to build the school in the same style as the church. (He would be retained again when necessary additions were made.) Once again, Hudson River Bottom Stone from the Milburn Reservoir was used. Indiana Limestone which matched the trim of the church was also used as the trim of the school. The school and the church matched so well, that many refused to believe they were not built at the same time.
The original church was torn down in the early '60's and our current church was built. The original school building still stands on the corner of Merrick Road and Pershing Boulevard. In 1925, the school was 58 feet wide, and 151 feet long. The two story building had a red tile roof, and wide entrance doors that faced Merrick Road. There were eight classrooms, and "one of the finest auditoriums in Nassau County" with two dressing rooms, a balcony, and natural light from 12 large windows. The auditorium was the largest hall in the county, and was the site of the first Masque and Civic Ball sponsored by the Nassau County Police Department. The Baldwin Fire Department also held their dances there.
The Sisters of Saint Joseph were a part of Saint Christopher's School from the very beginning. Sister St. Agnes was the first principal, Sister M. Jeromita, Sister Jeanne Clare, Sister Prudentia, Sister Amata, Mrs. McDonough and Miss Monica Russ were the first teachers. As classes began in September of 1925, the 205 students registered in grades one through seven met in the church basement. As the rooms became available, the students were moved into the new building. On May 15th of the following year, students from the school received their First Holy Communion.
When school reopened in 1926, Sister Mary of the Sacred Heart, replaced Sister Agnes Veronica, the acting principal in the wake of the death of Sister Saint Agnes the previous November. There were 280 students in grades one through eight. In June 1927, twelve girls and nine boys became the first graduates of Saint Christopher's School.
By the end of the 1920's, Saint Christopher students were winning prized in local academic competitions, a school choir had been formed, as well as Troop 126 of the Boy Scouts of America.
The school continued to grow in the '30's. By 1936, eight of the sisters were teaching double grades, with an average of 55 students in each of the classrooms. That was also the year that the Confraternity of the Christian Doctrine was organized, with the nuns responsible for teaching religion to the public school students.
Some activities the students of that decade participated in are the same for the students of Saint Christopher's today. There were food drives for Thanksgiving, collections for Holy Childhood, and the May crowning of Our Lady.
Saint Christopher's school weathered World War II like the rest of the nation, and in 1949, the pastor, Father John Gorman, announced the Sisters of Saint Joseph would be moving into a new home. The current convent, finished in 1950, stands across Pershing Boulevard from the school and has room to house 20 nuns.
The population of Baldwin "boomed" in the 1950's and 1960's as people moved their families from the city to the suburbs. That spurred a new addition to the school. There were nine new classrooms and a "real" office for the principal when students returned to school in September of 1957.
According to an article in the April 26, 1962 issue of The Baldwin Citizen, there were 3,200 school age children in Saint Christopher's Parish. about 800 of those attended the Parochial school. Another 200 attended Catholic High Schools in the area.
1965 was a year of change for Saint Christopher's school. That's when Sister Theresa Miller became principal of the school. While at Sacred Heart Academy in Hempstead, she was dismayed to discover that some exceptionally bright students did not get college scholarships because of reading disabilities. Developing reading skills on the elementary school level became her priority. Shortly after coming to Baldwin, Sister Theresa contacted Dr. Dorothy Anderson, and they began a reading program which made Saint Christopher's school a pioneer at that time. In 1966, Saint Christopher's was chosen by the Diocese of Rockville Centre to become a pilot school in reading programs.
The Music Supervisor of the Diocese, Sister Grace Xavier, also singled out St. Christopher's School. She taped a series of music lessons with the students and their music teacher, Mrs. Marie Grimaldi. Those tapes were then made available for other schools in the area to use.
The 60's were a turbulent time, with the waging of the Vietnam War. Through a program of the Long Island Press, the seventh and eighth graders "adopted" the GI's in Vietnam. Their letter writing was so appreciated by their pen pals, that in 1967, Vietnam veteran and St. Christopher graduate Albert Smith returned to the school. He thanked the students for all their letters to the servicemen.
By the mid '60's the school was filled to capacity, and needed more room. Father Gorman had already purchased two houses on Pershing Boulevard and was able to start the building process for the latest addition. When Monsignor Joseph Lawlor became pastor in 1967, he purchased another property on Gale Avenue. The houses were razed to become the current school yard.
On May 28, 1968, Bishop Walter Kellenberg conferred the Sacrament of Confirmation. Then, in the pouring rain he blessed the new addition to the school. There was now a cafeteria, a library, a science lab, eight more classrooms, art, music and guidance rooms, a new nurses office, a more efficient principal's office and a renovated gym with a new floor. That year, a new physical education program began for grades three through eight. Two years later, the first and second graders were added to the program.
1969 saw the establishment of the School Board, whose ongoing concern has been to advise the pastor and the principal. One of the outcomes was the "600 Club" which continues to this day. Since there had been some interest in a Parent-Teacher organization at the school, the board founded the Home and School Association that year.
There were a number of activities open to the students with a Math fair being held in 1967 and the establishment of the Leadership Club in the spring of '68. In 1969 Sister Mary Elizabeth directed the eighth graders in excerpts from Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew". The spring of 1970 saw Sister Joan Devine and Mrs. Peg Feeney organizing a girls softball team, and Sister Mary Elizabeth produced "The Tempest" with the eighth graders once again on stage, accompanied by a dozen choristers from the Glee Club. Sister Mary Elizabeth continued to direct these Shakespearean productions until the mid '80's.
St. Christopher's School was awarded a singular honor in 1971. It became the first non-public school on Long Island to receive a mini-grant from the Nassau Regional Planning Office of BOCES. The $2,650.00 was used during the '72-'73 school year in a reading project directed by Dr. Anderson and supervised by Sister Joan Devine.
At the end of 1971, the graduating seniors were treated for the first time to a farewell dance by the seventh graders. Gym Teacher William McGinley introduced Sportsnite to the school in 1972. The tradition of friendly competition between the Blue and White teams made up of the seventh and eighth grade students continues to this day.
The end of the decade saw the school community wading through a terrible ordeal. Someone passing the school in the early morning hours of December 15th, 1979, noticed flames erupting from the windows of the school gym. It took the Baldwin Fire Department over three hours to bring the blaze under control. Sister Dolores McLaughlin recalls that many of the fire personnel were former students of St. Christopher's school and they cheered when the fire was brought under control. At one point it was feared that the whole building would be destroyed.
The school basement where the electrical fire broke out was destroyed, and the gymnasium heavily damaged. There was a large crater in the floor. Other parts of the building suffered smoke and water damage.
The gym had been decorated for the Christmas Pageant to be held that day, Sister Dolores remembers one of the firefighters being concerned about what would happen with the pageant. He worried about how his daughter would feel since it was her first year participating! The production was moved to the lower church which was packed. Many parishioners who did not have children in the school came to show their support.
Repairs began immediately and the less damaged portions of the building were back in use as soon as possible. No school time was lost. The children from the two classrooms that were most affected were temporarily moved to other rooms. When the students returned from Christmas vacation, the school reopened to a full session of classes.
After fifteen years of ministry as the principal, Sister Theresa Miller retired in June of 1980. Sister Dolores McLaughlin moved from her position on the faculty to that of principal. This decade saw a number of changes in St. Christopher's School. A computer room was set up in 1984 with seed money from a grant from Chase Manhattan Bank. In 1987, Spanish courses began. The fall of 1988 saw the first kindergarten classes at St. Christopher's School with two half-day sessions.
Student Council was formed the next year. The elected representative from grades 6,7 and 8 meet once a month during their lunch hour to discuss ideas and ways of helping others in school and beyond.
Over the past decade, St. Christopher's School has continued to expand. A Pre-K program was added in 1996. Also that year, the Diocese of Rockville Centre began a program of technological grants which have been applied for and received each year. The moneys from these matching grants have contributed to wiring the school for computers, which are both in the classrooms and in the computer lab, as well as adding to the software library.
Changing times and dwindling enrollments have contributed to the closing of parochial schools at a number of nearby churches. While St. Christopher's has welcomed students from those parishes, it still remains a parish school.
The new millennium marks another milestone in the history of the school and a chance to continue improving the education that the students of St. Christopher's School receive. Over the past 75 years Saint Christopher's School has seen many changes. The priests, Sisters of Saint Joseph, faculty and students come and go, but one thing always remains; school spirit!
[This article appeared in the St. Christopher's Courier written by Karen Montalbano]
[The source material for a major portion of this article war found in the Parish's 60th Anniversary and 75th Anniversary journals)