St. Joseph Central High School community gathers for last gala
PITTSFIELD — "Good and gracious God," intoned the Rev. Chris Malatesta, "we ask Your blessing on our gathering tonight ..."
The jazz quartet had fallen silent. People stopped reaching for appetizers.
The priest looked down at his written invocation, his big message crowded onto a single page. Before him sat over a hundred people nestled around tables, their heads bowed. Pitchers of ice water wept droplets on white tablecloths.
"COURAGE," the priest had typed in capital letters in one sentence. "GRIEVE" in another.
Everyone in this Pittsfield hotel ballroom had come together Friday evening "to celebrate a rich tradition of goodness," the priest said.
And they were gathered to do that one last time at the Crowne Plaza. Six times before, hundreds of St. Joseph Central High School supporters had turned out here to raise money and induct alumni into the school's hall of fame.
But that was before the Springfield Diocese announced in October that because of collapsing enrollment, this would be St. Joe's final year.
The Rev. Malatesta, of St. Agnes in Dalton, had decided to get right to that.
"We have sad and heavy hearts but are grateful for so many lives touched while celebrating 120 years of Catholic education," he said, his words amplified across tables to the food stations and cash bar at the back. "It is without a doubt that our community is stronger and healthier because of what we have shared."
Thirty-seven current and former teachers listened. They mixed at tables across the big room with alumni, administrators, directors and 15 members of the Catholic order of sisters who long served at St. Joe's.
Though it was to be a night of leave-taking, the room buzzed with warmth and good cheer, as classes held mini-reunions, people hugged and former students greeted teachers they hadn't seen in years.
The event pulled from across New England, and even attracted one member of the Class of 1996 who flew in after performing in Atlanta the night before.
Matt Cusson, a 37-year-old singer-songwriter and producer, offered the crowd something he says he learned at St. Joe's — a live performance, as the jazz quartet took a break.
Later, he was catching up with Lillian Quinn, the St. Joe's academic dean from 1973 to 2014, whom he credits with setting him on his career path. Quinn also oversaw musical productions. She knew Cusson dreamed of making music.
"She said, 'You are going to sing on stage,'" he said. Quinn cast him as Curly in "Oklahoma."
"It was huge," Cusson said of that step. "She got me on stage and that's when I fell in love with performing."
"I knew he was headed for stardom," Quinn said.
When their table was called, two friends from the Class of 1961 stood waiting at a food station for martini glasses to be filled with mashed potatoes, then topped with delicacies.
Asked to share favorite memories of their St. Joe's years, Bruce Barents, who lives now on Cape Cod, played it straight.
"The nuns were very fair. Strict — as they should be. I had a good education and was glad to go there," Barents said.
But his friend Joseph Bourquard, grinning and clutching two glasses of the potato offering, had a shorter answer to the favorite memory question.
"Recess," he said.
Recess in high school? he was asked.
Well, a few minutes here and there, he clarified.
The class plans to stick together as long as it can. After its 50th reunion, members decided to meet every year, Bourquard and Barents explained.
That sense of unity was on display Friday.
Mark Lange, a member of the Class of 1971, recalled that when someone got the notion to do something, many in the 129-member class joined in.
"We traveled as a class. When the class went somewhere, the whole class went. To this day, there's a group of us who are tight," he said. "It was just a really good class."
Kathy Raftery, a fellow member of the Class of 1971, remembers it the same way.
"We did things as a large group. We were very cohesive," she said.
Sister Julia Sullivan sat with other members of the Sisters of St. Joseph order at a table near the middle of the room. She'd spent 23 years on the St. Joe's faculty, including 13 as its principal.
It was going to be a bittersweet night, she started to say, then corrected herself. "It's more bitter than sweet. It was the best years of my life," she said.
Maxyne Schneider, a member of the same order, went to the podium at one point to tell people she'd calculated that 347 sisters had worked with the school over its 120-year history, collectively putting in 1,843 years as teachers and administrators.
"You can see why we feel so bonded here," she said.
"Closings are not easy," the sister said. But then she shared the order's own recent losses. Pressed financially, it had to close its mother house in Holyoke, moving old and frail members to the Boston area.
"We SSJs, then, understand facing the sober realities of shrinking income, declining numbers of people and growing operating costs," Sister Schneider said. "And we understand grieving. From our experience of loss, we can deeply and poignantly empathize with you, with all of you, at the closing of this beloved St. Joe's High School," she said.
Schneider thanked the St. Joe's community for all the years spent pursuing a shared mission. "And yes, we share the sadness that it can't go on in the same way," she said. "But the heart of what has been does go on. We are the legacy and the bearers of the gifts we have received in our wonderful schools."
Another member of the order, Joyce Culverwell, put in 30 years of teaching, until she retired in 2008.
"It was hard to go but physically I had to," she said.
After leaving, she said she missed the spirit of St. Joe's students and their embrace of the community.
"They knew there was always someone they could go to if they had problems," Sister Culverwell said.
John O'Brien, chairman of the school's board, had emcee duties Friday. In an interview earlier, he said he and others worked for years to keep the school going. Numbers showed as long as a decade ago that St. Joe's may not have been sustainable, he said.
"The hill has been very steep," O'Brien said. "We were all focused on making it work."
While the decision to close was made by the diocese, and not his board, he understood and accepted it. "I know what the financial picture looked like. We clearly hit the tipping point. Catholic education is challenged all over," he said.
And with its loss, a valued secondary-school option is gone from the educational landscape in Berkshire County, O'Brien believes. St. Joe's is the only operating Catholic high school in the county.
"It takes away what I always thought was an important option," O'Brien said. Though he is a graduate of Pittsfield High School, his wife and children attended St. Joe's.
"I think the sense of community, family and closeness ... just can't be duplicated in a public school. It's unlikely to be duplicated," O'Brien said. "There's a loss here that Berkshire County will not realize yet. Sometimes you don't know what you have until it's gone."
Sister Sullivan, who spent more than two decades with St. Joe's, agrees.
"It takes an alternative away from them," she said.
From the podium, O'Brien took pains to thank teachers. "We are grateful to all of you for the commitment you made to our children."
He noted that Principal Amy Gelinas has worked "in trying circumstances" to keep the school running this year even as she prepares for its closing this June.
And, echoing others, he saluted the sense of St. Joe togetherness.
"While we know that the school is closing ... we know that family is forever," O'Brien said.
Mark Brazeau, who taught physical education for nearly 40 years, and was athletic director for 12 years, recalled that it wasn't long after he arrived at St. Joe's in 1973 that disturbing news came.
"I think we were told in 1976 that we might be closing. We always lived with that," he said.
Enrollment in his first decade, he said, was around 600. It had fallen to half that a decade ago. This year started with well under 100 students.
The financial picture changed when the school started charging tuition. But the city's struggles, including shrinking employment at General Electric, took its toll.
"I think the general economic situation hurt," he said.
But the school persevered, long enough for him to help educate the grandchildren of his earliest students. "They were always proud to be Joeys," Brazeau said.
After people had moved on to dessert, one graduate able to boast of past athletic prowess, Kevin Sherman, who attended in the 1990s, came forward for a featured address. He bat .540 during one baseball season.
Sherman, a former Pittsfield City Council president, said that while growing up, he couldn't wait to get to St. Joe's. The four years he spent there were the best four of his life, he said.
"The lessons I learned about loyalty, resilience, hard work, leadership, faith, community and confidence have guided me to where I am today," he said.
The school's closing doesn't end its achievements, Sherman said.
"With the physical footprint gone, that won't diminish the spirit, the camaraderie, the blessings, the memories that we all have," he said. "This is not the end of the Crusaders, by any means. As long as we're here, the spirit will endure and I know that we'll all continue to pay it forward."
The Rev. Malatesta had similar thoughts, as he composed his invocation.
He had decided to work in elements of the school's motto. So he composed this sentence: "We know God, have pursued excellence and have learned to serve others."
And after thanking the people who taught and studied, and who served the St. Joe's cause in any fashion, he had offered, just as Sherman would, a note of defiance.
That endings are what you make of them.
"All we have done and will continue to do in Your name cannot be taken from us," the priest said, the room otherwise silent. "We ask Your blessing on all we do tonight in Your name — allow us to celebrate, to grieve and to carry with courage Your spirit as we move forward to share Your love with all we meet."
Reach staff writer Larry Parnass at 413-496-6214 or @larryparnass.
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