St. Joseph School in New London is 80 this year, a cause for celebration

Joe Feeney, right, of Waterford, Class of 1955,  looks while Paul Burnett, left, of Waterford points to his Class of 1957 class photo on display with other class pictures during the 80th anniversary celebration for St. Joseph School in New London Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017.  (Dana Jensen/The Day)
Joe Feeney, right, of Waterford, Class of 1955, looks while Paul Burnett, left, of Waterford points to his Class of 1957 class photo on display with other class pictures during the 80th anniversary celebration for St. Joseph School in New London Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

New London — Graduates of St. Joseph School tend to stick around southeastern Connecticut.

Enough of them, at least, were close enough to New London to make it to a celebration of the 80th anniversary of the school's opening Sunday morning, filling the school's auditorium with memories of the school's past and hopes for its future despite a dwindling enrollment.

Graduates of the school from the first kindergarten class in 1937 to the eighth grade classes in the 1980s and '90s lined up to stand in front of a wall of yearbook photos, straining their necks and standing on their toes to get a better look at their childhood classmates.

Frederica Fells Plummer, who graduated from eighth grade in 1960, said she was at the school when the teachers were almost all nuns with the Sisters of Mercy order.

"This seemed to be so much bigger when I went here," she said, looking around the school's auditorium after a special mass at St. Joseph Church next door.

As a kid, she said, her Catholic parents gave her no say in the matter before deciding to send her to St. Joseph.

"It was, 'You're Catholic, you're going to Catholic school,'" Plummer said.

Nuns have disappeared from St. Joseph as they have from almost all Catholic schools, but school board member Rita Moore said the commitment to Catholic education hasn't wavered.

"The religion is really brought into everything," she said. "We don't have the nuns anymore, but we do have dedicated, dedicated teachers. The kids have very fond memories of it."

The school's enrollment peaked at 226 when the nearby St. Mary Star of the Sea School closed and left St. Joseph as the New London's only Catholic school in 2012, but has dropped to 119 this year.

The school has changed, said St. Joseph pastor Rev. Mark O'Donnell, in enrollment numbers and the backgrounds of its students.

Catholic immigrants from Haiti, the Philippines and Latin American countries now make up more of St. Joseph's families than in an earlier era when most of the children had Italian, Irish or French names, he said.

"I believe in the education that they provide," said Dougenie Alexis, a Haitian native whose grandsons are both in second grade at the school. "There's no place else you can find it — you have friends for life."

The school now also provides scholarships for students who graduate from eighth grade at St. Joseph and want to continue their education at the St. Bernard School in Montville. It also has a growing alumni association and has been making an effort to market to prospective students with modern methods, like Facebook.

Principal Marianne Cote, who has been at the head of the school for nearly two decades, mingled with the school's alumni Sunday, New London Mayor Michael Passero among them.

"We've been here a long time," she said to the small crowd gathered in the auditorium. "And we want to be here another 80 years."

Sunshine Marcille, whose four kids have all attended St. Joseph, introduced herself as a member of the parent-teacher association, still called the "home-school association" in a holdover from another time.  

"Not a lot changes here," she said.

Marcille said she's confident the school will last despite its dwindling numbers.

"I do still feel like there are enough families committed to Catholic education," she said. "I've seen it help my children through so many things ... they have this faith to look to, to guide them."

m.shanahan@theday.com

Isabella Pero, left, Britanie Vil, center, and Jackson Brenek, right, and their fellow members of the St. Joseph School eighth grade bell choir participate in the Mass at St. Joseph Church in New London, Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017.  The school celebrated its 80th anniversary after the Mass Sunday at the school located next door.  (Dana Jensen/The Day)
Isabella Pero, left, Britanie Vil, center, and Jackson Brenek, right, and their fellow members of the St. Joseph School eighth grade bell choir participate in the Mass at St. Joseph Church in New London, Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017. The school celebrated its 80th anniversary after the Mass Sunday at the school located next door. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
People gather in front of a display of graduating class photos during the 80th anniversary celebration for St. Joseph School in New London Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017.  (Dana Jensen/The Day)
People gather in front of a display of graduating class photos during the 80th anniversary celebration for St. Joseph School in New London Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
People enter St. Joseph School in New London to celebrate its 80th anniversary after Mass next door at St. Joseph Church Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017.  (Dana Jensen/The Day)
People enter St. Joseph School in New London to celebrate its 80th anniversary after Mass next door at St. Joseph Church Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
Gracyn Barnhill and her fellow members of the St. Joseph School eighth grade bell choir during the Mass at St. Joseph Church in New London Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017.  The bell choir participated in the Mass by performing a couple of songs. The school celebrated its 80th anniversary after the Mass Sunday at the school located next door.  (Dana Jensen/The Day)
Gracyn Barnhill and her fellow members of the St. Joseph School eighth grade bell choir during the Mass at St. Joseph Church in New London Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017. The bell choir participated in the Mass by performing a couple of songs. The school celebrated its 80th anniversary after the Mass Sunday at the school located next door. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

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