This year, the Elmhurst school is celebrating its 125th anniversary. Next Saturday, St. Adalbert is hosting a commemoration event for parishioners, alumni and parents. Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio will be in attendance to celebrate mass, and the school will host an open house.
As the anniversary celebration approaches, generations of alumni, parents and educators reflected on what the school has meant to them and their families throughout the years.
Catherine Buczynski, now 99 years old, is likely among the oldest living alumni of St. Adalbert. The Elmhurst resident graduated in 1932, back when all of the educators were nuns and all of the students were Polish.
The oldest Polish parish in Queens, St. Adalbert was first created in 1892, which was quickly followed by the establishment of its parochial school that same year.
According to the parish’s website, the first classes were held in the church’s basement. It wasn’t until 1921 when St. Adalbert built its first school building.
For Buczynski, the school became more than just a place where she learned. She met her husband there, who graduated in the same class as her. Originally from Greenpoint, her husband moved to Maspeth and started in the 6th grade.
“Everybody went to school, and everybody was happy,” Buczynski said when asked about her experience at St. Adalbert.
Buczynski’s daughter, Cathy Fleming, graduated from St. Adalbert in 1968. Not only did she attend the school, but all her cousins are also alumni. She recalled that it was a “well-liked school with a good reputation,” and she never dreaded going to class.
Her comments about the school matched exactly her mother’s sentiments. She remembered “being happy there.”
“It was good for my soul. Truly, it was,” she said. “I have very good memories. I had a good background and foundation.”
What Fleming loved the most was the sense of community St. Adalbert fostered. They had Christmas pageants in the auditorium, where students dressed in costumes and performed dances. The school hosted an annual bazaar and Children’s Day, where students would win prizes.
They even hosted a big show when the pastor visited, and the students would eat White Castle hamburgers in the backyard.
“A lot of traditions are still carried on now,” Fleming said.
She noted that during her days at St. Adalbert, the church and the school seemed connected “like one.” Functions for the school took place in the church, and the church informed students’ education.
On the first Friday of the month, she recalled, classes went to the church for mass. Students would also meet on Sundays to go to mass together.
“The school brought your faith,” she said.
Fleming wasn’t just an alumnae, she also became a parent. Her son, Timothy Fleming, graduated in the class of 2004. Three generations of their family attended St. Adalbert, and have witnessed both the changes and commonalities firsthand.
“My grandma was in the same classrooms I was in,” Tim Fleming said. “In a neighborhood where a lot has changed, it has been a constant rock in the community.”
Fleming said St. Adalbert wasn’t just a school for him, it was also his neighbor because his family lived around the corner. He remembered meeting his first friends, riding bikes around the building on weekends and learning how to read, all within the school’s friendly confines.
“It set me on my path to where I am now,” he said. “It was a constant presence in my life.”
Fleming later went on to attend Regis High School, Georgetown University and Harvard Law School. He now works as an attorney in Manhattan.
“I owe a lot to St. Adalbert,” he said.
Joan Ciantro, a member of the class of 1947, is another lifelong Elmhurst resident who lived just half a block from St. Adalbert. Growing up in a close-knit community, she said children then went into their friends’ houses after school to play because “the back door was always open.”
At 5 p.m., their mothers would poke their heads out and call their kids back in to wash up and have dinner together.
“It was a softer, nicer time,” she said. “We all knew each other and got along.”
Ciantro said going to St. Adalbert taught her values like family, honesty and hard work. She attributed the school to her growth not just as a student, but as a person.
She also felt a sense of community and belonging that has never left.
“It’s a close group of good friends who truly love each other,” she said. “I think we were taught that in school.”
Parents of children who attended the school also felt that bond. Joan Riordan sent four of her children to the school, all of whom graduated in the 1980s. In 1975, when her first son started at St. Adalbert, Riordan recalled walking through the school’s doors and feeling like “this is home.”
“Everybody knew the children, took them in as if they were part of their extended family,” she said. “That was how I felt here also, like I was part of the family at St. Adalbert. I felt so at home coming in, helping out.”
Riordan said to this day, everyone in the parent community all remain friends, even though their kids have long graduated. They still help out at St. Adalbert, whether it’s the school or the parish.
She added that her children, now in their 40s, learned important Christian values from their Catholic education. All of their friends took away similar values as well.
“I see how they’re so giving to the community and family-oriented, so involved with their children,” she said.
For Angela Zero, who taught at St. Adalbert for more than four decades, the school has “always been family.” After her husband was involved in a serious accident, and after her mom became very sick, Zero said the sisters who ran the school and her fellow teachers helped her through the tough times.
“This is a very warm place to be, and I think everyone who comes here feels that,” she said.
Zero began teaching in 1969 and retired in 2013. She mostly taught kindergarten, but sometimes taught 3th, 4th and 5th grade as the social studies teacher. Though she retired, Zero still comes back to sub and help out whenever she can.
She remembered that when she first started at St. Adalbert, teachers used a blackboard, a pencil and a copy book. By the time she retired, they had smartboards and computers.
“The world changed, and we changed right along with it. We kept up with it, so we never fell behind,” she said. “But I think the children who I taught with a copy book, a blackboard and a pencil were just as educated as the children that I taught with a computer and a smartboard.”
The technology isn’t the only aspect of the school that has changed over its century in existence. The population and demographics are different. The school alumni said when they attended decades ago, the school was mostly Polish, Irish or Italian. Today, it’s a much more diverse student body.
Tuition is another difference. When Buczynski was in school, she paid a quarter per month. For Cathy Fleming, it was $1 a month. Today, tuition is closer to $4,000 a year.
However, alumni noted that if adjusted for inflation, tuition back then was “as expensive as it is now.”
But despite the cost, all of the parents and alumni interviewed said it was well worth the Catholic education they received.
“You made sacrifices, but now, my children are all in their 40s with children growing up of their own,” Riordan said. “It was worth it.”
Sister Kathleen Maciej, the longtime principal of the school, has seen many of these changes in recent years. Her first stint at St. Adalbert was from 1988 to 1992. But after six years away, she came back in 1998, and has led the school since.
She said though the population of the area has changed, she believes the difference is the change in the family structure.
“We see a lot more single parents trying to raise families, needing more help from the school,” she said. “Children reaching out to us more because their parents are working long hours, so they turn to the school as their place of comfort and family.”
“We really are their second family because of the number of hours they spend here,” she added. “Giving them the values they need in a world that’s so distorted with values right now. Bringing God into their life all the time.”
Sister Kathleen is part of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth, the community that has led the education of St. Adalbert’s students since the school’s inception 125 years ago. They try to instill values like respect, honesty, friendship, family and integrity into all of the children.
She spoke of many examples of students, past and present, who come back to St. Adalbert for guidance and that sense of “family spirit.” Sister Kathleen said she makes sure every student understands that the school is also part of their responsibility, and that they should respect and take care of the property.
“Those are the values you want to teach them so they carry it on as they go forward,” she said. “They stay with you.”
When asked to reflect on 125 years of family and community at St. Adalbert, the alumni, parents and teachers said they couldn’t imagine a world without the school.
“We’ve been here 125 years, and that is absolutely wonderful, we are still the same school,” Ciantro said. “We haven’t changed. We’ve kept our same values, and we’re teaching the children the same values that I was taught.”
“I think the core of the school, the values of the school, have stayed the same,” Cathy Fleming echoed.
Zero said if the school was to ever close down, many people would “be in mourning.”
“It would be like a death in the family,” Riordan said.
As the anniversary event draws near, the generations of community members who have stayed involved with St. Adalbert said they look forward to seeing old friends at the celebration.
“I hope it’s here for another 125 years, at least,” Riordan said. “It’s a wonderful community.”