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A fond farewell to St. Gabe’s

Philadelphia Councilman Kenyatta Johnson attended the last eighth grade graduation at St. Gabriel School in Grays Ferry, which closed after 113 years. Contributed photo

After 113 years of serving the Grays Ferry community, the St. Gabriel school at 30th and Dickinson streets has closed.

The final class of eighth-graders graduated on June 9 and the school celebrated its history with a fun day of activities for all of its students the following day. It gave faculty, staff and students a chance to enjoy the historic school one last time before officially closing its doors for good.

“It’s always sad when a Catholic school closes, especially one that has been around for 113 years, and has been a real stalwart of the Grays Ferry community,” said Brigid McClelland, interim principal at St. Gabriel School. “This has been a cornerstone and a gathering place for the entire community to come together, so to see the end of this is deeply saddening.”

Police hold a demonstration for St. Gabriel students during a final celebration as the school will close after 113 years. Photo/Mark Zimmaro

Independence Mission Schools has overseen St. Gabriel since 2012, when the Catholic grade school was originally slated for closure by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. It was announced in January that St. Gabriel would be a casualty at the end of the school year because of declining enrollment and rising operating costs. The school educated students from pre-kindergarten to eighth grade.

The school’s enrollment had dipped below 130 students, which represented about 28 percent of its capacity. About half of those students have enrolled for classes next year at St. Thomas Aquinas at 18th and Morris streets in Point Breeze, which is also run by Independence Mission Schools.

McClelland will return to her position as assistant principal at St. Thomas after she was asked to serve as interim at St. Gabe’s in March after the former principal left. She helped spearhead an effort to make the final days of the school enjoyable for the students and staff who loved it so dearly.

“It’s been a big blow to a lot of the students,” McClelland said. “Some of them have been going here their entire lives and their parents have graduated from here. But this staff is incredible. The way that they have come together in the last six months to make this the best experience possible for the kids is truly awe-inspiring. It’s a testament to their dedication and their love for these children and the school and Grays Ferry in general.”

Staff members attempted to make the transition easy for the students despite fighting back their own emotions. Patricia McSweeney is a former student of St. Gabriel, and has been teaching at the school since 1983.

“This school is a beacon for our neighborhood and home for a lot of kids,” McSweeney said. “It’s a safe place for our kids to come to. We’ve been a family through thick and thin and despite going our separate ways, we’re still going to have that St. Gabriel family feeling.”

Meeka Outlaw recently started teaching eighth-grade history at St. Gabriel, and has experienced the sadness of seeing Catholic schools close before in Grays Ferry. She attended the former St. Aloysius at 26th and Tasker streets and graduated from the former King of Peace at 26th and Wharton streets. St. Gabriel represented the last Catholic school in the neighborhood.

“This was the last one,” Outlaw said. “It’s sad because it’s the last Catholic school in the neighborhood and it was here for a long time. It taught generations. I really feel for the younger kids who didn’t get a chance to graduate, especially the seventh-graders who have been here their entire life and needed just one more year.”

St. Gabriel church will continue to operate and the school building will be returned to the archdiocese once it is cleared out. IMS had been leasing the building from the archdiocese for $1 a year but was responsible for all maintenance, improvements and utilities. 

St. Gabriel opened in 1908 with 456 students. By 1920, more than 1,300 children were registered with 17 sisters teaching at that time, with classes spilling over into the convent, according to the school’s website.

The celebration of the 113-year run included food, games and even a police demonstration, led by “Hank,” a very friendly golden retriever in the K-9 unit. It also gave students a chance to reunite with their classmates after more than a year of virtual classes.

“It was bittersweet because you know it’s the end but you’re trying to give (students) one last great memory of the school,” Outlaw said. “But the sad part is you know you’re not going to see them in September. But we are happy they are enjoying themselves.”

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