St. Jerome is one of the 22 schools the Archdiocese of New York plans to close for financial reasons. And as WFUV’s Claudia Morell reports, the closure is seen not only as the loss of a school but a tear in the community’s fabric.
Nannette Torres’ daughter and son attend St. Jerome in the Mott Haven neighborhood of the South Bronx. Torres said the announced closure hit especially close to home.
“I was more hurt because I lived and grew up in this neighborhood. I went to St. Jerome myself. It’s apart of the neighborhood itself,” Torres’ said as she exited the school after talking with a representative of the Archdiocese assigned to assist parents with finding another school for their children.
Torres doesn’t live in the neighborhood anymore, but said she picked St. Jerome for her children because they still have family in the area and both her kids were baptized and received their first communion there.
Another parent, Teresa Guzman told a similar story: her daughters went to St. Jerome and her granddaughter is a student there now. Guzman has lived in the community for 30 years, and said she was devastated when she heard the news.
These stories are not unique as they expressed the sentiments prevalent in this neighborhood. Many of the parents I spoke with had some kind of familial or personal connection to the parish or school.
St. Jerome has been apart of the Mott Haven neighborhood since the turn of the 20th century, when it was predominantly Irish and German. Fordham University African American Studies Professor Mark Naison said parish churches like St. Jerome played a central role in these communities.
“The parish church was the way you identified your neighborhood: the parish church and the parish school,” Naison explained. He described how many of these Catholic immigrants would create separate enclaves centered around their parish church. It was not only a place of worship, but also a place where people could speak in their vernacular and continue certain traditions from their native countries.
Mott Haven has since seen several demographic shifts over its 141 years.
The Irish and German immigrants first moved to the area after the first subway trains were built. Nasion described Alexander Avenue, where the school is located, as the Irish Fifth Avenue. It was a community of mostly middle and working class families living in five-story walk-ups. Naison said these Irish families tended to be poorer than other European immigrants and almost always sent their children to catholic school.
By the 1930s-1940s, overcrowding and a limited housing stock caused several migration streams out of Harlem and into the Bronx. Upwardly mobile and light-skinned Puerto Rican families had an easier time moving into Mott Haven than their African American counterparts. It was mainly due to racial hostility. Naison said African Americans, instead, skipped a couple of train stops and moved to Hunts Point and Morrisania, which was heavily Jewish at the time.
In addition to the Harlem exodus, the construction of several public housing units in the post-World War II area changed the make-up of Mott Haven. When the city constructed the Patterson Houses in the 1950s, followed by the Mott Haven and Mitchell Houses, there was little initial change as they were filled with predominantly white families. By the 1970s, however, minority groups had a rapidly growing presence until there were only a handful of Irish families left, and many of them were elderly.
Over the past 10 years, there has been another major shift: an influx of Mexican immigrants. The Puerto Ricans are now moving out of the neighborhood, making these Mexican immigrants the largest population in the community with small numbers of Dominicans and West Africans.
St. Jerome once again adapted to serve its changing community. When Professor Naison visited the neighborhood five years ago, he said the parish church had a majority Mexican congregation and then-parish priest Father John Grange had made several changes to cater to the community, including a shrine of the Lady of Guadalupe and community outreach for new families. According to Professor Nasion, It was this ability to adapt that had made St. Jerome a success through the years, “This church, which had served Irish immigrants and then Puerto Ricans, was now becoming the place where Mexican immigrants could feel not only the connection to their faith but to their culture.”
The Archdiocese of New York announced on January 22 that St. Jerome School would be closing its doors, ending a century old tradition of serving the community. Financial constraints are the reason for this closure. The diocese states it had to close 22 “at risk” schools to keep its entire system afloat for future generations.
“The Archdiocese is not alone in facing financial challenges in education—we share these issues with public, private and other faith-based schools across the country,” said Cardinal Timothy Dolan in a written statement when the closures were finalized. “This reconfiguration process will help ensure that our schools will be financially stable, sustainable and, more importantly, open to all students.”