Book Excerpts


Immaculate Conception Chapel School, Scranton, Pennsylvania

Published by: RoseDog Books

In 1943 Immaculate Conception was still a mission chapel of St. Peter's Cathedral Parish, having one pastor, Reverend Francis A. Costello, and one parochial school, Cathedral School, founded in 1872 as the first Catholic School in Scranton and originally named St. Cecilia's Academy. The children from the Petersburg and Hill sections of the parish who attended Catholic school were enrolled in the downtown facility. Religious instructions were also provided at the Cathedral School for those attending public schools. In 1923, the Mission Chapel of the Immaculate Conception was built. While it was not yet a parish in its own right and had no resident pastor, the chapel became the center of worship for Catholics from the Hill Section, and its auditorium also provided a convenient location in which to hold religious instructions for the children. The Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary who had served as teachers at the Cathedral School from its opening in 1872 serviced the Mission Chapel as sacristans and religious education teachers from the time of its opening in 1923. (60)

In 1941, Monsignor Martin J. O'Connor (later, Archbishop) as pastor of Cathedral Parish acquired the old Bayard Taylor, No. 35 public grade school, located at the corner of Taylor and Olive Street, from the Scranton School District. This building was a three-story, red brick structure with ten classrooms and two spacious halls. It was in complete disrepair at the time of its purchase, but under the direction of Monsignor O'Connor, extensive improvements were made--the tower which surmounted the school was taken down; the iron fence that surrounded the property was removed and the grounds landscaped; classrooms and halls were painted; desks sanded and refinished; and new blackboards set in place. At the time of the purchase of the school, two vacant lots across from the property on Olive Street were also purchased. This land was graded and sodded and playground equipment installed. New cement walks were laid. These playground facilities were made accessible to all the children of the neighborhood. (61)

A year before the school was officially opened to students for a regular full-time session, religious instructions were offered twice weekly in the school building. In the summer of l942 both kindergarten and catechetical instructions were held there. The sisters engaged in this work included Sister Francella Shaughnessy as kindergarten instructor; Sister Margrete Kelly, Sister Maris Law and Sister Rosalita Smith taught religion to the various grade levels of children. These sisters lived at Cathedral Convent and commuted by the day to the Chapel School building. (62)

Monsignor O'Connor had been made Auxiliary Bishop of Scranton, so his pastorate was given into other hands. He had prepared well for a successor and the many matters for which he had been responsible were transferred with relative ease. By September 7, l943, all was in readiness for the opening of Chapel School. Monsignor Francis Costello, newly designated pastor of Cathedral Parish, celebrated a votive High Mass in honor of the Holy Spirit in Immaculate Conception Mission Chapel. Following the Mass, two hundred children from kindergarten through fourth grade marched the two blocks from the Chapel to the school under the watchful eyes of Sister Ricarda Gill, who served as principal of both Cathedral and Chapel Schools, and the five sister-faculty members. These included Sister Ignatius Brown, Sister Grata (Barbara) Brow, Sister Timothea (Jane) Driscoll, Sister Vera Nallin and Sister Carmelita (Jane) Berube.

Sister Ignatius was to spend only two months there since she was transferred to Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, in November 1943. Sister Maria Theophane Allen took her place at Chapel School. (63) Since 1938 Sister Ricarda had served as principal at Cathedral School, where the enrollment was about 600 pupils, so perhaps she took it in stride that she was now being asked to add 200 to her expert care!

The foresight shown in planning for and opening Chapel School is evident in the fact of its growth to almost six hundred students by 1958. The numbers of students exceeded the space limitations, so the then pastor, Monsignor Robert A. McNulty, announced that the eighth grade would henceforth be located at Cathedral School on Wyoming Avenue and that children who were not members of Cathedral Parish (or the Mission Chapel) would also transfer to the Cathedral School. But even with these arrangements the Chapel School still enrolled nearly five hundred children. Nine sisters and one lay teacher comprised the faculty at that time.

On August 28, 1958, Monsignor McNulty also announced that Miss M. Pauline Casey had given her home at 612 Clay Avenue to the Cathedral Parish for the use of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, as a convent. Miss Casey had given this property to the Bernardine Sisters in 1943, but in withdrawing their sisters from the faculty of South Catholic High School in 1958, the Bernardine Sisters returned the property to Pauline Casey. These events were providential for our sisters, since the growing faculty at Cathedral High School would have soon brought about the need for an additional residence to accommodate the faculty of Immaculate Conception Chapel School.

The Casey residence was located two blocks below the school in the beautiful hill section of Scranton. Its twenty rooms readily accommodated the needs of the nine sisters who took up residence there on Saturday, August 30, 1958. The local community included Sister Rose Francis Brown, superior and principal, Sister Miriam Eugene Carroll, Sister Constantine Proulx, Sister Marquita Sealey, Sister Greta Collins, Sister Charlene Templeton, Sister Rosaria Joyce, Sister Eugenius (Teresa) O'Malley and Sister LaSalette Connell.

Monsignor McNulty on Sunday, August 31, l958, celebrated the first Mass in the new convent. A Jesuit priest, Reverend Joseph P. Logan, was appointed chaplain, thus providing daily Mass in the convent for the sisters.

Pauline Casey continued to show her extreme generosity by having the exterior of the convent painted and by purchasing a new electric stove for the kitchen. Generous gifts and donations were made also by parishioners and by the families of the sisters to provide chapel, kitchen, library and other materials for the convent. (64)

Chapel School continued to grow as a K-7 grade school, reaching a peak of 514 pupils in 1962-1963. By 1966, declining enrollment at the downtown Cathedral Elementary School, however, resulted in the decision to close the Cathedral Elementary School, transfer grade seven from the Chapel School to the Cathedral High School building, thus creating a junior and senior high school complex; and to provide for Cathedral and Chapel elementary students a K-6 setting at the Chapel School.

While these actions were logical due to the shifting population of the downtown parish with an enrollment of 184 students, 121 of whom were in grades 7 and 8, it was obvious that the end of an era had come. St. Peter's Cathedral Grade School building had been, over a 94-year span a most significant spot in the history of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. The original building on this spot was opened and blessed on July 2, 1872, by Bishop William O'Hara, first Bishop of Scranton, and on September 8, 1872, it was named Saint Cecilia's and became the motherhouse and novitiate of the Congregation, transferring from Susquehanna, Pennsylvania. On September 26, 1872, St. Cecilia's Academy was opened as a resident and day school and became the first school founded in the diocese by Bishop O'Hara. The sisters resided on the fourth floor of this structure above the school, with no elevator to ease their ascent. Portress duty was reserved for the young and agile!

At the time of the decision to close Cathedral Grade School in 1966, it was decided to retain this 92-year-old structure as a convent for the Cathedral High School faculty until further plans could be made. (65)

On June 17, 1967, Immaculate Conception officially became a full-fledged parish, separate from Cathedral Parish. The word "Chapel" was dropped from the name of the parish. The first pastor of the newly created parish was Reverend (later, Monsignor) Leo W. Gildea. (66)

The deteriorating physical condition of the Chapel School building was a serious financial drain on the parish and became also a safety concern of the parents of school-aged children. Throughout 1970 and the spring of 1971 there was much discussion about the future of the school as the enrollment dropped to 160 pupils, K-6 grades. There were additional costs also as three lay teachers were hired to augment the four sister-teachers. An exchange of letters between Bishop J. Carroll McCormick and Mother Beata Wertz in December 1970 and January 1971 indicate the Bishop's desire and the Congregation's willingness to continue this school. (67) And, as the annals report, "Easter recess brought happy news. The Church Bulletin announced that our Reverend Bishop did not want the school closed and repairs would be planned." (68)

Monsignor Gildea was replaced as pastor by Reverend (later, Monsignor) William Purcell on September 8, 1971. Aware of the enormity of his tasks, Father Purcell, nevertheless, began with great enthusiasm and with the support of the parishioners to renovate the school. During the week of January 7, 1972, teams of parishioners painted classrooms throughout the building. New desks were placed in the first five grades and new tile flooring was laid. Bishop McCormick visited the school on May 2 and expressed his approval of all that had been accomplished. Open house was held on May 7 for all parishioners, both to affirm the labor that many had contributed and to conduct information and public relations efforts on behalf of increased enrollment for the school.

The beautiful twenty-room former Casey home that served as the Immaculate Conception Convent was also in constant need of repairs and refurbishing. In the summer of 1972, Father Purcell and his volunteers tackled the job of painting the convent inside and outside. At this point there were only four full-time sisters and one part-time sister assigned to Immaculate Conception. It was not surprising, then, that there was talk of selling this large home and moving to a smaller house. On May 3, 1973, talk became reality and the pastor purchased a new convent home at 817 North Irving Avenue. The Casey home (Clay Avenue Convent) was sold to Mr. Richard Walsh. The summer of 1973 was spent moving from 612 Clay Avenue to the new convent on North Irving Avenue with cleaning, packing, unpacking, and rearranging the order of the day. The move was completed on August 10. Father Purcell, pastor, offered the first Mass in the new convent on September 1 and on September 10 Bishop McCormick blessed the entire house.

The reality of a low enrollment in the fall of 1973 of only 135 pupils and continuing rumors that Immaculate Conception was going to close, together with the Bishop's exhortation to the sisters to strive to keep Immaculate Conception School open, caused concern for the little community, which now included Sister Rose Angela Ruddy, principal and superior, Sister Cecile Gallagher and Sister Jean Coughlin. Their number was increased by one when a postulant, Suzanne Campbell, was assigned for third grade. (69) Their concerns were not unfounded, for on September 18 Sister Rose Angela, as principal, attended a Congregation meeting at which she learned that our sisters were to be withdrawn from several schools, including Immaculate Conception, at the close of the school year. The annals describe shock and disbelief, even numbness, as the emotions characterizing the pastor, sisters and parishioners as they received this news. (70) The plan was that students from Immaculate Conception School would be bused to St. Clare's and St. Paul's Schools in Green Ridge, utilizing the busing system of the Scranton Public School District. Insofar as feasible, books, equipment and materials from IC would be transported to St. Clare's and St. Paul's over the summer. It is not difficult to imagine how the sisters spent June of 1974 as they readied the school building for occupation by personnel of the Northeast Educational Instruction Unit #19 on July 1. The building was to be prepared to be a school for the handicapped in September 1974.

The Irving Avenue Convent, too, had to be dismantled, after only one year of occupancy by our sisters. The statues and the monstrance from the chapel had been the gift of Sister Greta Collins' family. These were given to our convent on River Street in Scranton. Furnishings belonging to the parish were, of course, left behind, but disposing of books and materials belonging to the community was a large task. Many spiritual reading books were given to the Passionist Sisters at St. Gabriel's Monastery.

Father Purcell, no doubt inundated by the events of the year, was not present at the final closing of the convent. He had left on July 5 to serve as chaplain with the Armed Forces of the l09th Division for two weeks. On Sunday, July 14, Father Callahan removed the Blessed Sacrament from our Chapel. Sisters Rose Angela, Maria Rita, Leo Marie and Henry were in attendance . . . On Monday, July 15, Fathers Meckwood and Callahan visited us to say goodbye, to thank us for the work of the IHMs through the years, and to wish us well. The rest of the day was spent completing those inevitable last minute items. Finally, at 4:30 p.m. we closed the doors and returned the keys to the rectory. (71) The thirty-year presence of our sisters at "the Chapel" had seen a long line of religious women, rendering quality educational service under the leadership of outstanding principals including: Sister Ricarda Gill, Sister Paulette Morrison, Sister Alma Shelley, Sister Alma Marie Morgan, Sister St. Helen Sullivan, Sister Rose Francis Brown, Sister Bernita McDonough, Sister Carol Baden, Sister Honor Lenihan and Sister Rose Angela Ruddy.

In tribute to all of the sisters who had served at "Chapel" School an unidentified woman wrote a story for the Scrantonian in 1981 as the old building, upon the decision of Father F. Allan Conlon, pastor, and his parishioners, faced the wrecking ball of the M & S Demolition Company of Old Forge. The writer renews many happy memories of the old school, and asks:

Was it the magic of the building or the people who staffed it that created the aura? I think it was both. I think the school starved for the special touch of the IHM Sisters, with their optimism and spirit. For although the original heating registers in each room were engraved August 1, 1870--the official birth of the building--I feel now that it must not have taken its first breath until 1941 when the Diocese of Scranton bought it and the Sisters came. But that is only my feeling, and there is no one else here to debate it with this quiet morning . . .(72 )