By Lois Rogers | Correspondent
As in many parishes with schools, Rumson’s Holy Cross traditionally begins Catholic Schools Week with a Mass celebrating the blessings and benefits of outstanding academic and religious programs offered in a nurturing environment.
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And this year, the Jan. 29 Mass also offered something more: a chance to share in the joy of the school’s 75th anniversary. It may have been that special grace note that drew more than 700 current and former students, faculty and staff as well as parents, relatives and members of the parish community to the church and the social that followed in the school gymatorium.
It was standing room only at the 10:30 a.m. Mass celebrated by the pastor, Father Michael Manning, accompanied by students who proclaimed readings, served at the altar, raised their voices in song, welcomed one and all to the social and gave tours to prospective families at the open house that closed out the day.
In his homily, Father Manning asked everyone to enrich this dual celebration of Catholic Schools week and the major anniversary by focusing on the Beatitudes as taught by Jesus in the day’s Gospel. “At the beginning of Catholic Schools Week, we celebrate 75 years of (Holy Cross) school,” said Father Manning, who noted that these days, receiving a Catholic school education is something that cannot be taken for granted.
He urged students and their parents to think about the fact that Jesus uses the word “beatitude” – which means blessed – to refer to the state of spiritual prosperity that comes with a focus on putting prayer into action by following the Cross.
“Christ is the teacher,” urging “prayer and action,” the primary example to all faithful that like the followers who heard his Sermon on the Mount, “you can’t just be on the mountain or the field, you have to be on both.”
“… Let us pray that Holy Cross school is a place that always keeps its eye on the Cross,” he said “and forms young people in knowledge, virtue and faith.”
Growing in Faith
From a school with modest beginnings in the mid-20th century, Holy Cross has evolved, with the dedication of parents, faculty, staff, students and alumnae over the 75 years, into a vital institution. Named a National Blue Ribbon School of Academic Excellence in 2012, its students consistently place in the top 15 percent of all schools nationwide on Terra Nova standardized tests.
Located on a parish campus nestled on the banks of the Shrewsbury River, Holy Cross School has been a focal point of Catholic education in the area since it 1941 when it opened in an old mansion known as the Prentice House.
And the newly written history produced for the anniversary celebration by parishioners, former students and staff, deftly describes how far it has come since then.
Over the decades, the "old house" as students fondly remember it, would give way to the expanding needs of a growing student population. The school would transform by way of several capital campaigns, from that first facility serving as school and convent of the Sisters of Mercy who taught there, into a much larger complex where Holy Cross has kept current with educational needs and trends.
The first of two major expansion projects led by Msgr. Jospeh A. Sullivan, pastor from 1947-1973 – included an auditorium, kindergarten and library. Those facilities were located in the long wing of Holy Cross School which still exists today.
Flourishing enrollment led to the school being enlarged once again in 1962, gaining the school six new classrooms. But the history notes that difficult times set in shortly thereafter as the number of Mercy Sisters – once a faculty of 10 – decreased and the need for a lay staff increased.
Msgr. Sullivan and parishioners met this need by establishing the first school board in the Diocese of Trenton which brought together the PTA, administrators, religious and lay faculty. Committees were formed to address curriculum, grounds, finance, legal issues and management.
The history credits these actions with providing the “necessary fund raising and organization to keep the school operational and setting the framework for much of what was to come. During Father William J. Kokoszka’s tenure (1973-1988), the library was greatly expanded, language arts were added for all grades, a remedial reading teacher was added to the faculty, there were gym classes for the younger grades and the kindergarten was relocated to a “sunny room” in the convent.
Aware of the need to update and embrace 21st century technology, another major upgrade commenced in 2004 when Father Manning became pastor. In just two years – on Dec. 16, 2006 – Father Manning, then principal Patricia Graham and the school community celebrated the re-dedication of the expanded school.
The old auditorium/gym had been converted into two floors that included a library/media center, professional kitchen and new bathrooms. Also added was the new, state-of-the-art “gymatorium” equipped for athletics, school events and Mass when needed.
Four new interactive classrooms and a science lab afford access to 21st century technology including tablets for every student in grades four through eight, smart boards in every classroom, a 3D printer for technology class and wireless internet throughout the building.
If anything stood out at the reception following the anniversary Mass, it was the sense of family uniting hundreds of all generations who gathered in the gymatorium to celebrate.
In the history of school, William J. Belluzzi, who became principal in 2012, noted the “family atmosphere” of Holy Cross which has inspired many parents and alumni to return to the school as office staff and teachers.
Among them is Debbie Bagnell, who with her family, including husband, Michael and daughters Kate and Emily, were gift bearers during the Mass.
At the reception, Bagnell, herself a kindergarten assistant, spoke warmly of the school as a “family of love, God centered and wonderful to be a part of.” Bagnell reflected on how all her children thrived educationally and spiritually including graduates Michael and Jennifer, Emily, who teaches third grade there, and Kate, who will graduate this spring.
Mairead Clifford sounded similar notes about her “three girls” – Brigid and Molly, Holy Cross alumnae now enrolled in Trinity Hall on the campus of Fort Monmouth, and Ciara who is in seventh in Holy Cross.
“The sense of family, the sense of support is so important as is the really through education at Holy Cross,” Clifford said. She praised Holy Cross “on every level, whether it is in religion, writing, language arts, world languages, sciences and math. We wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
Grace “Tucky” Parent was one of many alumnae at the Mass and reception with fond recollections of their days in Holy Cross.
A 1957 graduate, who like the Bagnells, returned to work in Holy Cross teaching music and directing the adult choir, Parent remembered being among the last of the students to attend classes in the mansion. “I was in the second grade and we were taught by (Mercy Sisters). I remember one sister for 48 or 50 kids. They were wonderful teachers … so nurturing.”
Parent said that when she returned to teach in Holy Cross, what most delighted her was the sense of camaraderie among the faculty, staff and parents who all focused their energies on the students. “It all flows from the parents to the teachers to students.”
“Everyone,” she said with a smile, “was always on the same page.”