Underneath the four spires of St. Bridget Church in East Falls, a white paperboard sign adorned with red lettering leans against the altar. It reads, “Let all around us be peace.”
On this, the last day of classes for St. Bridget School – perhaps forever – peace is all anybody could ask for.
Amidst children noisily expressing their enthusiasm for the pending summer recess – and a constant stream of staffers and parents coming through her office – Susan Canio, principal of St. Bridget School, balances the emotional gravitas of the day, the uncertainty of her student’s destiny, and a need to conduct what may prove to be the final student recognition ceremony in St. Bridget’s 130 year history.
An uncertain future
For several months, the fate of the school was considered sealed. After an initial closure decision, followed by an emotionally-charged appeal process, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia ruled definitively in March that St. Bridget would close and be merged with Holy Child School in Manayunk, forming St. Blaise Regional Elementary School.
However, in light of recent announcements by Archdiocesan officials indicating an uncertain future for St. Blaise due to low enrollment figures, it is anyone’s guess as to what will happen to St. Blaise, St. Bridget or Holy Child. A final determination will be announced on Monday.
Canio is a 40-year veteran of the Archdiocese and, save for several years spent in Roxborough, a life-long East Falls resident. She’s slated to head St. Blaise – should it open. On Friday morning, she was unsure of what lay in store for the troubled regional school.
“The archdiocese will make that decision,” she said, “and I’ll have to wait and see what that decision is.”
Meanwhile, Canio must distribute awards to St. Bridget’s approximately 200 students.
Last day procedures
At the conclusion of St. Bridget Parish’s 8:30 a.m. mass, Canio asks the students to begin their departure from the school, moving into the church proper.
In so doing, numerous students in the hall are overheard to be saying, “This is the last time I see this, this is the last time I see that.”
Shortly after 9 a.m., Canio departs her office, and walks toward the church. As she negotiates the stairs that lead from the school to the transept entryway of the church, she provides a clue to her feelings.
“I have two boxes of tissues with me,” she says.
Reaching the bottom of the steps, she is greeted by Sister Dorothy Crowley, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph, a convent housed on the St. Bridget parish campus.
“Sister,” Sr. Dorothy says to Canio, “my prayers go with you.”
Still, there are administrative exigencies to contend with. Addressing a group of students who are goofing around on the steps, Canio turns around and shouts, “Stop! You’re going to church!”
A lesson in ‘adjustments’
Reaching the church’s interior, the pews are filled with parents, relatives, and more than a handful of curious witnesses, perhaps wishing to see the final act in the story of East Falls’ sole parochial school.
Seated by a table piled with certificates of achievement and medallions signifying accomplishment, Canio listens to Rev. Joseph Devlin, pastor of St. Bridget, deliver his address.
“I recall a painting in my grandparent’s home that was called ‘School’s Out,'” begins Devlin, noting its depiction of children in the throes of joy at the promise of a summer without scholastic obligation.
“It captures beautifully the spirit of the last day of school,” he observed.
“That’s certainly part of today,” he continues. “But also part of today is bittersweet. Sweet because school is done, but bitter because we know that today completes our history as a parochial school.”
“We bring all those emotions to God today,” he offers.
Turning his attention to the school’s transition, he says, “Life, as you know, is a series of adjustments, and that’s a tough lesson to learn sometimes, but a lesson we need to learn.”
“Sometimes we have to accept things we’d rather not accept, and this is part of the tough lessons of life,” a seeming reference to the feelings experienced by many over the merger.
“Know that St. Bridget is always your home,” he concludes. “You’re welcome here always.”
As Devlin steps away from the pulpit, a woman seated in a pew clutches a rolled-up ball of tissues in her hand, and gently dries her eyes.
A suitcase full of values
As the awards begin to be distributed, sadness turns to pride, as parents see their children and their children’s classmates file up to the altar to receive one of the many awards being distributed.
Cameras are turned out, and teachers seated in the pews flash their students quick smiles of reassurance.
At last, it is Canio’s turn to speak after distributing one of the highest honors at St. Bridget School, the Principal’s Award. She’s held up well though the readings and through the award ceremony.
“Dear boys and girls,” she begins, “we’ve been through a lot this year.”
Using a travel analogy, she says that the luggage that gets one through life is “a tremendous faith in God.”
“Here at St. Bridget School, you were able to pack your suitcase not with material things, but with warm values and the excellent education that will provide you with a safe successful trip,” she continues.
“Believe me, there will be bumps in the road – some little, some huge,” she suggests. “My hope is that you will live by the values that you were taught by your teachers and by the values that you witnessed in them.”
Offering a blessing, the moment begins to take hold of Canio.
“May God the Father hold you in the palm of his hand,” she says, holding back tears, “may God the Son be your example, and may God the Holy Spirit be your guide on this wonderful, exciting and blessed journey of life as you continue on today.”
Regaining her composure, Canio recites a fragment of a poem by e.e. cummings.
“I carry your heart with me,
I carry it in my heart,
I am never without it.”
Steeping back from the microphone, she is met with thunderous applause.
Getting through the emotions
After Rev. Devlin offers a few closing words, the students and parents effect a rather disorderly dismissal, at which point Canio steps down from the altar. There are a few remaining awards to hand out, as well as hugs to give and thank-you cards to receive.
Just after 10 a.m., she shakes the last hand, collects her wicker basket containing the left-over awards, and surveys the lingering crowd.
“All right people,” she says in mock exhortation, “start your summer!”
Exiting the church, Canio receives a hug and a benediction from Sr. Dorothy, and continues up the stairs to her office.
Before her own early dismissal, there’s paperwork to be filed with the Archdiocese, and groundwork to be laid for the following year at St. Blaise, should it occur.
Before turning her attention back to work, she recalls the prior evening, when she had to conduct a “School Reach” – St. Bridget’s school-wide electronic phone messaging system.
“The first time, I cried. The second time, I cried. The third time,” she states, “I just had to get through it, and let [the emotions] go through.”
‘I won’t say goodbye’
On the steps leading from the Midvale Avenue parking lot to the school, a handful of parents and students take end-of-school-year pictures.
Conversations that will begin in earnest Friday afternoon will determine the outcome of their school, and will no doubt shape the future of Catholic education in Northwest Philadelphia for years to come.
Offering well-wishes to a departing faculty member, Sr. Dorothy embraces the teacher and walks her away from the steps toward the parking lot.
“I’ll see you later,” says Sr. Dorothy to the young woman, with a heart-wrenching earnestness in her voice. “I won’t say goodbye … so I’ll say ‘see you later.'”