“We’re coming home.” With those simple words, Sister Patricia Chelius, longtime principal of St. Francis de Sales school in Belle Harbor, told The Wave that the school would reopen on Tuesday, January 22nd, nearly three months after being flooded by Super Storm Sandy. In the aftermath of the storm, more than 500 students and their families found themselves in a scramble to find housing and schools which resulted in a wide scattering including some going as far away as San Diego, CA.
During Sandy, St. Francis’s classrooms, gym, and offices were flooded and its heating system destroyed. Once the gym dried it became a supply and relief center for thousands of people. The rest of the school remained unusable.
Since its opening 100 years ago, the St. Francis de Sales school has been a prominent presence on the west end. “With so many kids missing, you know with all of them in Brooklyn or wherever, Belle Harbor was like a town without kids,” said Steve Stathis, president of the Graybeards. “This is great news having them back. We’re a long way from normal but this really is great.”
In early November many of the students headed for Good Shepherd school in Marine Park, Brooklyn and squeezed in with students already attending that school. Although helpful in the short term, the sharing arrangement was hardly ideal. With the help of the Brooklyn Diocese, Sister Patricia was able to find SS Simon and Jude parish which had closed its school three years ago. Over the Thanksgiving weekend work crews including movers, painters and electricians prepped the moth-balled school and got it ready for some 300 students or about 75 percent of the regular student body with others remaining in schools elsewhere.
The relocation and establishment of something close to a normal school would have been challenging under any circumstances but doing it in the weeks following Sandy made the task particularly onerous. Besides the upheaval for families, teachers and administrators were all personally affected or displaced by the storm and now had to open and operate a robust but temporary school while trying to get their own lives in order.
SS Simon and Jude is located near Avenue T and McDonald Avenue in Brooklyn. Some students residing in Brooklyn made it to school on their own. A lot of students and their families had stayed in Rockaway after the storm and others had returned home since. St. Francis arranged for these students to be transported each morning by coach bus from the Belle Harbor Yacht Club on Beach Channel Drive and Beach 126th Street. The Yacht Club was a good option for students who were allowed to wait inside the warm building before boarding the buses. Sister Patricia made a point about thanking John McCann and Kathy McDonagh, club members who were particularly helpful in coordinating club use for St. Francis. Donations also helped. People and organizations from around the country made contributions to assist the school in its temporary quarters.
While Sister Patricia told The Wave that many people were to be thanked and that it was a “great team effort” that made the temporary school a success, it was she who was praised by a number of teachers who called the Wave separately. They noted her tireless efforts and concern for all.
When a return date was finally decided upon, Sister Patricia made visits to each classroom to break the news. “I went to every class to see the joy on everyone’s face.”
When St. Francis opens its doors on Tuesday morning there will be an attempt to establish “school as usual” including students wearing uniforms. It is expected that students who found schools other than the St. Francis alternate at SS Simon and Jude will return to the Belle Harbor school over the next few weeks while some may finish the school year elsewhere.
Monsignor John Brown continued in his role as pastor of St. Francis during these turbulent months while also overseeing relief operations in the gym and schoolyard. Look to The Wave in coming weeks for more details about the parish’s role in relief efforts and plans for its future.