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The History of St. Lawrence Grade School

In May of 1895, the Reverend Jeremiah Curtin was named the first resident pastor of St. Lawrence Roman Catholic Church in West Haven, Connecticut. The parish numbered approximately 200 people.

 

Prior to that time religious education for the Catholic youth of West Haven was confined to Sunday, as children were educated in the public schools. Father Curtin’s fondest desire was a school for the children of the parish. In 1917, as America prepared for World War I, Father Curtin began construction of Saint Lawrence School.

Father Curtin contacted the Sisters of St. Joseph Chambery to get teachers for this new school. Four classrooms were ready when the Sisters arrived in September to commence teaching. When Sister Evangelista Smith, Sister Imelda Harrison and Sister Dominica Crowe arrived in West Haven after their long trip from Hartford, the sisters reflected on the momentous task of establishing a new school with a vision to educate students intellectually, spiritually, morally and physically in an environment that was Christ centered.

 

The new structure was designed to contain twelve classrooms and the upper floor was used as a dormitory for the sisters while the convent was being erected.

 

In 1920, the upper floor classrooms of the school were opened. This completed the grade 1 through 8 configurations of the school. Through the remainder of the decade the school grew. The people became attached to their school and grew to love the Sisters as much as they loved Father Curtin.

 

The Class of 1924 was the first to graduate with 27 students. Their Class Motto was “We’ll Find a Way or Make a Way.” The Class colors were white and gold. The Class Officers were President, Edmund Maden, Vice President, Stanley White, Treasurer, Melanie Weiss and Secretary Anna Ziellenbach.

 

Within a decade seven sisters staffed the school. Mother Euphrasia served as administrative head, superior to the convent, and 8th grade teacher. The parishioners were concerned with the Sisters’ welfare andprovided them with transportation and essentials, because, according to Sister Mary Canisius “salaries were so meager.”

 

The Sisters educated both the mind and soul. Parents confidently entrusted their children to the sisters for preparation for the sacraments, and exposure to the traditions of the Catholic Church. Every student who has graduated from St. Lawrence can recall the May Crowning ceremony, the preparation for first confession and First Communion, masses on first Fridays and attending daily Mass and the Stations of the Cross on Fridays during Lent.

 

During the 1930’s the school community was very active. The Children of Mary were holding weekly bingo games and the money generated by these activities were used for scholarships. The school was now an integral part of the parish and the parents of the children were involved in many activities.

 

Father Curtin served for forty-one years. At the celebration of his Golden Jubilee of Ordination in 1933, the school children, under the guidance of the Sisters, presented Father Curtin with small handmade gifts.

 

Father Curtin passed away in 1936 and for the next twelve years, the Reverend Arthur G. Cavanaugh directed the activities of the School. Father Cavanaugh reduced the debt, no small feat in a depression, and he founded the Saint Therese Guild, which still serves the parish and the school. A Kindergarten was opened in 1940 and continued for nine

years.

 

In 1941 Saint Lawrence School families went to war with the rest of America. The children and Sisters prayed for the safe return of older brothers, fathers, uncles, and alumni from the battlefields of Europe and Asia. The new peace that came to the world following the Second World War brought with it the yellow “Fallout Shelter” sign outside the school.

Water and food were stored in the school basement.

 

With the death of Father Cavanaugh in 1948, the Reverend John Heller was transferred from St. Boniface Church in New Haven to become the next Pastor.

 

Under Father Heller’s guidance in 1955, a new addition to the school, which included four classrooms, student lavatories, and an office complex, was added. Father Heller sought to educate the whole person, so he also added a gymnasium/auditorium. Toward this end, his curates cultivated the youth of the parish with an active CYO.

 

During the 50’s, the enrollment of the school had increased to 450 students with two classrooms at each grade level, for a total of 16 classrooms. This class structure would continue for approximately 25 years.

 

Sister Mary Canisius, who originally taught at the school in the 1930’s returned in 1956 to serve as principal and head of the community of sisters who served at St. Lawrence. Departmental teaching was developing at this time and Mother Canisius taught English. She wrote that “The students were docile, the parents supportive and throughout my six-year tenure, the teachers, both religious and lay, were professionally devoted to their very important work.”

 

The student body had now grown to 600 and as the 1960’s dawned, a Mother’s Club was formed. The Mother’s Club provided service to the school, which sponsoring enjoyable social activities. Father Heller was much loved by the school children and each afternoon he would greet them as they left school, with a pocket full of holy pictures, as well as a pat on the head. For years he handed out report cards to every class and would firmly encourage those students that had

a failing grade, or “Fishes” on their report cards to work harder.

 

Mother Canisius was replaced by Mother Herman Joseph in 1963. On November 22, 1963, Mother Herman Joseph had the sad task of telling the students and teachers that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. Teachers and students alike were in shock and distraught. The students and teachers knelt and were led in prayer for the first Catholic President.

 

Mother Herman Joseph was an interim principal who stayed only one year and was replaced by Sister Agatha. Mother Agatha led the school into a decade of change in the church and the world. The Second Vatican Council closed in 1965 and soon the liturgy was celebrated in English. At the end of her term the title “Mother” would be dropped and the traditional habit of the Sisters of St. Joseph would be modified.

 

During the 1960’s the school library expanded and became one of the best in the Archdiocese. The library would again be upgraded and relocated in 1988 through a donation by the Arthur Kelly, Sr. family.

 

Sister Agatha left in 1970 and was replaced by Sister Ethel McIlvain as Principal. Sister Ethel re-established an Annual Christmas Show and was regarded as an exceptional administrator.

 

Father Heller stepped down as Pastor in 1968 and was replaced by Father Francis J. Mihalek who remained Pastor until 1973.

 

The departure of Sister Agatha and Father Heller came at the end of the “golden age” of St. Lawrence School. The 1970’s brought a rapid increase in the cost of education. Tuition rose and while other Catholic schools closed under financial pressure, the parents of St. Lawrence worked hard to keep their school open. The annual bazaar and carnival that had initially been inaugurated by Father Curtin in 1924, was revived and the revenue derived from the car raffle as well as turkey shoots and bingos was used to underwrite the operation of the school.

 

There was also a decline in vocations, resulting in a need for more lay teachers. Still, the sisters devoted themselves to the work of education and were very much a presence in the school. Sister Ethel administered from 1970 until 1974. During her tenure the Home School Association devoted tireless efforts to the school and worked hard to keep it open.

 

For the first time in St. Lawrence’s history, a team of co-pastors, Fathers Vincent Brown and Maurice Maroney were appointed in 1975. They accomplished several projects - refurbishment of the church, establishment of a parish council and a school board. They served until 1986.

 

In 1986, Father Richard Taberski and Father Thomas Sievel arrived as Co-Pastors. A development program was established to make substantive repairs to the convent, school, and church Classes were consolidated and school development program, staffed by volunteers, was instituted. This program made possible the refurbishment of much

of the school.

 

Sister Marie Michael followed Sister Ethel as Principal. She served only two years and was replaced by Sister Mary Forster in 1975. Sister Mary administered the school through some of its most difficult years. The end of the Baby Boom and increased cost of tuition decreased enrollment.

 

With the restructuring of Our Lady of Victory School from a middleschool to K-8, families from the West Shore area no longer needed to avail themselves to the services of Saint Lawrence. This, along with an economic recession, caused a considerable drop in enrollment.

 

During the 1980-81 school year, a plan was implemented to restructure the school, which included maintaining only one section of each grade. This was a gradual process which took several years to complete. However, it allowed the school to reopen a Kindergarten class in 1980 as a half day program in two sessions. In 1989 that Kindergarten program

became one full day program which increased enrollment at the school, as many working families enrolled their kindergartener in the full day program to save on daycare costs, and then stayed on because of the educational program and spirit of community that characterized St. Lawrence.

 

The restructuring also enabled the school to solidify its financial base and create new programs, such as Pre-Kindergarten in 1988 and an after school program in 1990. The main office was relocated to a more accessible area on the main floor.

 

In the spring of 1995 the Sisters of Saint Joseph, who had served the school successfully for 78 years, informed the pastor that their community could no longer provide personnel for the administration of the school. The parish then engaged the services of Sister Rosemarie Ryan and Sister Cynthia Rouleau from the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, who assumed the leadership of the school through 2000.)

 

On July 1, 2000, the first lay principal, Mary Pat Wirkus arrived, marking the end of the Religious Community in both teaching and administration of the school. Under Mrs. Wirkus’ leadership the students started the Annual Walkathons to the beach area, field days in the school yard, and “Jail for Bail” which raised money for the school. The Pre-Kindergarten for 3 and 4 year olds program as well as the after school program was moved over to the old convent at this time, which allowed more students to attend and provide more financial income for the school. Mrs. Wirkus noted that “Parents were generous and very supportive of the things we accomplished.” Mrs. Wirkus was Principal until 2007.

 

After two interim Pastors, Reverend Mark Jette arrived in 2002 and has guided the School, along with the staff and administration ever since. Hundreds of students and faculty have benefitted from his wise counsel and spiritual advice, as well as his love of sports. His annual Golf Tournament raises much needed revenue for the School.

 

Enrollment trends were influenced by school transportation provided by the City of West Haven, the closing of St. Louis School and the welcoming of students from other faiths.

 

Paul R. DeFonzo arrived in July of 2007 and continues to the present as the first male lay principal of Saint Lawrence. Principal DeFonzo has brought many positive changes, both academically and structurally, to Saint Lawrence. Many advances in the area of technology, as well as in curriculum, have helped the students to be more college and career ready. Many physical upgrades have been made to the school to make it safer and more secure in line with what is happening in the world today.

 

Saint Lawrence School has been the cornerstone of faith based education in West Haven since 1917 and has a clear picture of its long and short-term development needs and plans, organization and staffing to meet those needs. As we proceed forward, we ask for your prayers, support and resources in our shared quest to enrich this great legacy for

many years to come.

The Sisters of St. Joseph This list was supplied by the Sisters of St. Joseph Provincial House and does not include Sisters that left the convent. ** These Sisters are still living. *** These Sisters were graduates of St. Lawrence School.

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Start And Departure Dates Name Change Maiden Names
St. Lawrence School Lay Teachers

There are no records of lay teachers from earlier than the 1960's so if you know of anyone who taught at the School that is not on the list, please let us know.

* next to the Gym Teachers and **next to the Principals.

© 2017 Saint Lawrence School West Haven CT