Book Excerpts


St. Ambrose Catechetical Center/Elementary School, Bridgeport, Connecticut

Published by: RoseDog Books

The Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary were not strangers to the pastor and people of St. Ambrose Parish, Bridgeport, when they went to establish a Catechetical School there in l944. Our sisters from Devon had taught religious instructions in summer sessions prior to 1944, commuting from Devon. St. Ambrose Parish, located in the eastern section of Bridgeport, had been established only about fifteen years at the time of the sisters' coming in l944. It was located in an area surrounded by large industrial plants, chief of which were General Electric and the Remington-Dupont Companies. Jobs were plentiful since these plants were operating on a twenty-four hour daily working schedule to meet the demand for war supplies manufactured here. It was an area that had been all too suddenly industrialized, hence lacked the housing, stores, and other services to support an influx of laborers and their families. A housing project called "Success Park" was built by the federal government and located in this section of Bridgeport. The people were of diverse nationalities with a slight predominance of the Slavic races. They were hard working, frugal themselves, yet generous with the Church.

There was no Catholic school in St. Ambrose Parish at this time, but Rev. Thomas P. Mooney, pastor, was determined to meet the religious education needs of the growing numbers of young people in his parish through the joint efforts of religious and lay instructors. Thus it was that he sought and obtained permission from Bishop Maurice F. McAuliffe to establish a Catechetical School and to seek the Sisters of IHM for this work. In February of 1944 he wrote to Mother Marcella to convey the Bishop's approval of the proposed project. (85)

Father Mooney's plan was to purchase a house at 460 Mill Hill Avenue adjacent to the church, make the necessary alterations, and have all in readiness as a convent for the sisters in August. Since the house he had in mind was already rented, it may not have been a simple matter to procure it. In any case, four sisters were appointed for the new mission: Sister Mary Martin Cawley, superior, Sister Mary Grace McCarthy, Sister Franzchen Yahner, and Sister Rita Marie Byrne. Since the convent was not ready, initially they resided with our sisters in Devon and commuted daily to Bridgeport to arrange for the scheduling of classes, ordering of books, and the numerous chores entailed in getting ready for school. Seeing the slow pace of the workmen engaged in the convent renovations, the story is told that Sister Mary Martin gave them fair warning that the sisters would be moving in "ready or not." And on October 14, 1944, that is exactly what happened! There was no furniture in the house upon their arrival but she saw to it that beds were ordered that day and delivered for use by the sisters that very night. Items found in the kitchen included a small hot plate, a set of dishes, and a bushel of apples. (86)

In spite of these unsettled beginnings, the work of the sisters met with immediate success in the great numbers of children who registered for the Catechetical School. There was a released time program for the public school youngsters from Hall, Edison, Stonybrook and Summerfield Schools. A total of 750 children were taught over the five afternoons each week. In addition, there were two sessions of religious instructions on Sundays. One sister estimated that about 1,200 different students were contacted each week. (87) The services of the four sisters were augmented by thirty-five volunteer lay instructors.

Old St Ambrose Convent- cropped
Original St. Ambrose Convent in Bridgeport, CT

The convent was at length completed and the chapel was beautifully furnished from the generous gifts of the people of the parish. The altar was dedicated as a memorial to the members of St. Ambrose Parish serving in the nation's armed forces, five of whom had lost their lives at that time. Bishop McAuliffe and several priests were present for the solemn blessing of the convent on November 29, 1944. The Bishop's presence was especially significant, since it was his last official and public action. He entered the hospital on December 3 and died within three weeks, a victim of overwork and exhaustion from his rigorous wartime schedule and impaired health. The sisters from St. Ambrose were present for the final prayers at his bedside. 

The people of St. Ambrose Parish were very happy with the work of the sisters. Their gratitude was often expressed in their generosity and help to the sisters. At that time the contract under which the sisters worked was for $450 for ten months per sister. It would have been impossible for them to live on $1,800 a year had it not been that, as Sister Thaddeus who was there from 1950-1952 recalled, all of their fresh vegetables and meat were given to them without charge by generous store owners from the parish. (88)

From the time of the sisters' coming for the Catechetical School, it was part of the plan that one day St. Ambrose Parish would have a parochial school. Father Mooney, pastor, was taking no chances, however, on whether sisters would be available when his school building was ready. In June 1950 therefore, he wrote to Mother Marcella about his plans to complete his school by September 1952 and his hope to open eight rooms in the new building. (89) He was assured by a return letter of July 10, 1950, that “ I shall do my best to have the quota in readiness for St. Ambrose's School.” (90)

Meanwhile at the Catechetical School, Sister Mary Martin had been followed as superior by Sister DeNeri McLane (1949-1950) and Sister Thaddeus Kelly (1950-1952). This work continued until the opening of the school in 1952, and even then some released time pupils continued to come for instructions until the program was discontinued. The sisters watched the gradual emergence of the new St. Ambrose Parish School, a two-story brick building of sixteen classrooms, with auditorium and lunchroom space on the ground floor. In the summer of 1952, just prior to the school's opening the sisters who were at St. Ambrose for catechetical work also took an interest in the new school and helped to prepare for its opening by covering books and decorating both the blackboards and the expansive tack board space in the halls. (91)

In order to provide residence space for the additional sisters who would arrive for the opening of school in September 1952, the pastor purchased a second house next door to the original convent. In 1954 there would be an enlarged dining room and kitchen added and the garages would be replaced to provide a passageway connecting the two houses.

Eight sisters staffed the first four grades at the opening of the school in September of 1952. These included Sister Elizabeth O'Sullivan, principal, Sister Franzchen Yahner, Sister Carmelita (Jane) Berube, Sister Ann Marie Foley, Sister Margaret Russell, Sister Therese Culhane, Sister Cornelius Scanlon, and Sister Paschal FitzGibbon. A Mrs. Rourke served as librarian that first year, but was added to the teaching staff in 1953. The classes were large, with about forty students in each class, for a total of about 300 students.

In each subsequent year of his pastorate, Father Mooney predictably sent in his spring request for two additional sisters as each grade was added and two sections were needed. He was not satisfied to have a lay teacher in his school because of the expense, and sought also a "lay sister" to relieve the financial burden of paying a "domestic" in the convent. (92) He was actually asking for four sisters that year, and it was understandable that Mother Marcella's reply would attempt to apprise him of the lack of realism in his request, in light of the shortage of sisters. She wrote in reply:

" .  .  . as I foresee a continued shortage of teachers, I can only promise to do my very best to send you two sixth grade teachers . . .Father, if the present fourth grade teacher is satisfactory, I would suggest that you keep her next year. You will not be the only one who will have to employ a lay teacher. Even in the Scranton Diocese, where it was an unheard of thing, pastors are now forced to hire lay teachers .  .  . If I give you two Sisters, Father, it will be more than I will be able to give anyone else . . ." (93)

September 1955 saw the enrollment in seven grades grow to 700 pupils with two sections of each grade. The principal, Sister Elizabeth, twelve other sisters and one lay person all taught classes of about fifty pupils each in sixteen classrooms, three of which were newly arranged in the basement area.

At the beginning and end of the 1955-1956 school year two key figures in the founding and development of St. Ambrose School were to be taken in death. Mother Marcella Gill, after some months of illness, died on September 14, 1955, and on June 30, 1956, Monsignor Thomas P. Mooney, pastor since the beginning of the parish, died. (94) The rapid growth of his parish and school had probably taxed his strength over the years. While he did not live to see the first eighth grade graduating class, he had lived to see the success of his labors in the dynamic parish life, the renewed congregational singing, the success of the school, and the excellent continuing program of religious instruction for the public school children. Reverend Thomas F. Henahan was named pastor in late September 1956 and arrived on October 5. He had been a school principal for ten years at St. Augustine's School, hence had a keen interest in the school at St. Ambrose's.

Monsignor Mooney's last letter requesting additional sisters had been sent to Mother Kathleen, successor to Mother Marcella. In it, he praised the work of the sisters, both in the regular classrooms and in the catechetical instructions provided three times a week to various groups of youngsters. His hope was to obtain two eighth grade teachers and a seventh grade replacement teacher for Sister Elizabeth so that she could devote full time to her duties as principal. Mother Kathleen, too, had to remind the good pastor that his was only one of one hundred schools she had to staff. She wrote,

"It would give me much joy were I able to send you all the Sisters you state are needed in Saint Ambrose School; but I am glad to promise you one more Sister for your school staff.  This addition may appear small from the point of view of your school needs; but it is large when viewed from the point of view of our limited supply and the pressing needs of the one hundred schools we serve." (95)

St Ambrose Convent Bridgeport CT-cropped
St. Ambrose Convent, circa 1957
Bridgeport St AmbroseSisters 1953
IHM Sisters stationed at St. Ambrose, circa 1953

Thus it was that the 1956-1957 school year witnessed 800 pupils in the full eight grades and fourteen sisters and two lay teachers as staff. These included Sister Elizabeth O'Sullivan, principal, and Sisters Dominica Gurrell, Paulita (Katherine) Broderick, Anna Maria Foley, Franzchen Yahner, Margaret Russell, Nativite Layden, Therese Culhane, Madeleine Merritt, Mary Lena (Theresa) Fitzgerald, Josaire Brady, Anton (Jeanne) Albrittain, Rosemaron Rynn and Bernard Mary (Ann Marie) Lynott. The lay teachers were Mrs. Catherine Rourke and Mrs. Biers. The first graduation was held on June 9, 1957, with 83 students receiving diplomas.

In 1958, Sister Joel O'Rourke replaced Sister Elizabeth as principal and eighth grade teacher. A full-time music teacher was added, namely, Sister St. Clare Flanagan. Sister Marietta Smith replaced the latter the following year because of illness. The school continued to attract about 800 pupils and had fourteen sisters and eventually three lay teachers until 1963-1964 when there were thirteen sisters. Sister Joel was transferred in June 1964 to Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, to serve as principal of the elementary school. Sister Andre Davoren who served as principal from 1964 until 1970 replaced her in Bridgeport.

There were many developments at St. Ambrose in this period, not the least of which was the move from the three houses into a new convent. 1966-1967 was called the "Year of Moving" as the sisters were scattered with five residing at Holy Name Convent, Bridgeport, with the Sisters of St. Cyril and Methodius; four were living with our sisters in Devon and four with the Collins family at Fairfield. A temporary convent was obtained on Barnum Avenue by the end of October. This must have been an interesting neighborhood with "Honest John's Swap Shop" and a scrap metal plant as neighbors! (96) On February 18, 1967, much joy accompanied the move to the new convent at 460 Mill Hill Avenue, across the street from the school. The dedication ceremonies took place on March 5. "Open House" was held for the parishioners on May 12, for the area religious on May 7, and for the IHM Sisters on May 20.

The school's enrollment decreased to about five hundred students in the late 60's, but maintained itself well into the 70s. Sister St. Pius Kirsch (Mary) was principal for one year in 1970-1971. She was followed by Sister Eva Marie Zlotucha who was principal from 1971-1980 in a time of decreasing religious teachers and increasing lay teachers. By 1979 there were eight sisters and nine lay teachers on the faculty. Sister Jane Ellis followed Sister Eva Marie as principal in 1980-1981 and served in that capacity until 1986. Under her leadership and with the cooperation of six IHM teachers and nine lay teachers, St. Ambrose School became the first Catholic School in the Bridgeport Diocese to be accredited by the State of Connecticut. (97)

The 1986-1987 registration was 459 pupils. Sister Beatrice Caulson became principal in 1986. (98)