Principal Sister Mary Ripp patrolled the hallways of Our Lady of Port Richmond on her way to supervise the lunch room. The hallways were alive with second-, fourth- and sixth-graders making their way to the school basement for their lunch period. Addressing every one she passed by name, the principal of one of the three remaining Catholic schools in Port Richmond followed the hungry children and made a few announcements before the eating could begin. Anyone with extra food is encouraged to share with children who do not have a lunch with them before a prayer was said over the meal. With that, Sister Mary Ripp excused herself from the room to handle administrative business and her day continued.
Three years removed from the opening of the school in 2008, Ripp was tasked with bringing together three separate parishes and the 400 students at Our Lady of Port Richmond under one roof.
But she has not done it alone.
Port Richmond used to have three separate Catholic schools within a range of five blocks: Nativity BVM, Our Lady Help of Christians and St. Adalbert’s. For decades the schools were instrumental in the upbringing of Port Richmond children. With the economic downturn, fewer parents became able to afford the tuition of Catholic schools and enrolled their children in public or charter schools.
“Before we merged there were about 200 school children in each school,” said Ripp.
With so few school children spread across three separate buildings, it was decided the different parishes needed to be brought into St. Adalbert’s, now Our Lady of Port Richmond, located at 3233 E. Thompson St.
Ripp said the move was also made to provide the children with a complete Catholic education, which includes studying the fine arts, sciences, foreign languages and a physical education program. The site on Thompson Street allowed for that to take place, whereas the other two buildings were considered too small.
“Nativity will be turned into senior housing, and Our Lady of Help Christians, offers an after school program five days a week,” Ripp said.
The biggest obstacle of all might have been getting the parents who grew up with three separate Catholic schools to come together as one after so many years.
That sort of transition should have been difficult. But tensions were eased by the attitudes of the children.
“[It’s] gone very well. It took some time getting used to for the parents but the children really helped. The children actually led the parents,” said Ripp.
Our Lady of Port Richmond Marketing Director Renee Rozniatowski has two children who study at the school. She said when the news came down three years ago the response from the community varied.
“There was a positive reaction from most, initially it was shocking for the parents, but for the kids it was an easy transition.”
Friends living next door to each other could belong to a different parish, but PTO board member Kelly Bonewicz spoke of the need to put differences aside for the benefit of the kids.
“Trust me it was difficult because we’ve had five generations at Nativity…Everybody needs to stop saying, ‘Well, this is what we did at Nativity or St. Adalberts or Our Lady Help of Christians.’ It doesn’t matter what we did, but what we have to do with our new school.”
Marketing director Rozniatoski added, “At first you couldn’t help [identifying with the parish you came from]. Some may have been hesitant at first to work through it but compromises were made from the three parishes and it’s gotten better over time.”
Rozniatoski admitted the community is so close knit, that even when three schools populated the area, it did not stop the children from getting together with those from other schools.
“We’ve always done things together. When we finished school we’d just go outside and play with the kids from the others school’s anyway,” she said.
“The children were really responsible for driving [the communication among the different parishes] forward.”
As the temperature warms and Our Lady of Port Richmond continues through its third full year in operation, the school is beginning to see fewer students enrolled into the Catholic school system.
“Our enrollment has fallen and that’s primarily because of the economy. Parents cannot afford to pay tuition so they are going to the public schools or the Franklin Town Charter School that has opened,” said Ripp.
In a community that used to lean heavily on religion for its traditions and lifestyle, could the area be shifting from that ideology? Sister Mary Ripp does not believe so.
Some students, like Jenna Pietrucha, find the bigger school to work to the advantage of the students. The higher enrollment allows for bigger classrooms and sports teams. “Both academically and socially it’s a lot better because you have so many more opportunities,” she said.
Sister Mary Ripp nodded her head when she heard Jenna say this. The principal thanked the students for taking time out of their classes to speak, excused herself one more time and continued down the hall toward her office for a meeting with a teacher. A very busy schedule for the last Catholic school principal in the neighborhood.
All in a day’s work.