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Students and staff at the largest Catholic high school in the country, St. Francis Preparatory School in Fresh Meadows, are celebrating the 150th anniversary of the institution they say has helped propel countless numbers of teenagers of all religions, ethnicities, races and financial backgrounds to success.
“The students at St. Francis are a reflection of Queens as a whole,” said the Rev. Bill Sweeney, the school’s chaplain. “There are Muslims, Catholics and Hindus who go here. There are a lot of different kinds of people who go here and everyone here is trying to make the world a better place.”
There are students like John Ketcham, a senior from Astoria, who believes the school is “representative of a humanity that seeks a better world.” Or Christine Berrios, a senior from Bayside who, despite her inclination toward the sciences, “had English and social studies teachers who actually made me want to learn more.”
Joanna Mavromatis, a senior from Whitestone, said though the school is large — there are currently 2,725 enrolled students — the place “feels like a big family.”
For Mavromatis, that made a big difference in her geometry grade. Her math teacher cared enough that Mavromatis should do well in her class that she and Mavromatis met early every morning for two months to work on geometry.
The results? Mavromatis got one of the best grades she has ever received in math.
There are thousands of stories like these that stretch back to the fall of 1858, when two monks from Ireland opened the school in a house on Baltic Street in Brooklyn.
While plenty has changed in the past century, including the school’s graduating class, skyrocketing from six members a century ago to more than 600 in recent years, Principal Brother Leonard Conway said the institution has been able to retain its close, family−feel among students who travel from all over Queens to attend the school, which consistently garners academic and athletic awards.
For example, St. Francis is the only Catholic school in the country to have semi−finalists in the Intel Science Talent Search 10 years in a row.
Conway added that the school strives to “remain true to its Franciscan ideals,” which means “always taking care of the needy and the middle class here.”
That entails helping a lot of students to obtain financial aid to pay for the $6,900 annual tuition. Many students receive at least $1,000 to go toward their tuition, Conway said, and alumni are “generous givers,” which helps the school afford to hand out numerous scholarships. This, he said, is a valuable tool for the many immigrant students who attend the school — a population which school officials said is especially important to aid.
“We started Catholic education because Catholics were oppressed,” said teacher Pat McLaughlin. “We’re going through this again with immigrants being persecuted.”
Students also praised the school’s numerous after−school activities, which span the gamut from paint ball to the political science club.
“I’m in so many activities that I’m at school from 7:30 in the morning to at least 5 at night,” said Ashley Freeman, a senior from South Ozone Park, who cites English as one of her favorite subjects. “I spend more time here than at home.”
While hundreds of thousands of Catholic schools across the country have closed over the past several years and thousands more await news of possible school closings, St. Francis officials are planning to expand their facilities. The school has recently announced its $15 million capital campaign to improve and expand the school. More than $5 million has already been committed by a handful of donors.
“The capital improvements will continue to make us one of the primary leaders in Catholic education,” Conway said.
©2008 Community Newspaper Group
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