Friday, July 17, 2020

St. Monica's School - 412-416 East 80th Street

photo by Jim Henderson

The extension of the Third Avenue subway line into the Yorkville district in 1878 and the Second Avenue line the following year resulted in a rapid increase in population.  In June 1879 (one month after he dedicated the new St. Patrick's Cathedral) Archbishop John McCloskey approved the organization of a new parish, St. Monica, at the lower hem of the Yorkville neighborhood.  Land was acquired on East 79th Street, between First and York Avenues.  On September 24, 1881 The Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that the Catholic Church "are going to build a church, to be known as St. Monica's Church."  Architects Babcock & McAvoy were preparing plans, the article noted, for a 100-foot wide structure with a seating capacity of 1,800.

They were also given the job of designing a school building on East 80th Street, directly behind the church.  Construction on that building was started around the same time as the church; but as construction on the church building slowed work the school was put on hold for five years.

Construction of the church building progressed at a snail's pace.  Nevertheless, work on the school building resumed in the fall of 1886.  Two years later, on August 27, 1888, The New York Times reported "St. Monica's new parochial school on Eightieth-street, between First-avenue and Avenue A [later York Avenue], was blessed by Archbishop Corrigan yesterday afternoon."  The newspaper noted "The building was begun in 1880 along with the church, but is completed before it, the latter not being above the basement story."

The Romanesque Revival structure was 60-foot wide and four stories tall over a basement level.  Designed in three vertical parts, the central section with its slate-shingled mansard and dormer was flanked by two tower-like pavilions.  The high ground floor and basement level were clad in brownstone and the upper floors faced in red brick.  The school, which could accommodate 1,600 students, cost $100,000 to complete--about $2.8 million today.  

The assembly room on the first floor could hold 600 students.  Below street level was a large space called St. Monica's Hall where parish activities were held.  From May 11 through the 14th in 1891, for instance, the "third annual musical and dramatic entertainment of St. Monica's C.T.A.B. Society" took place in the Hall, as announced in the New York Herald.

The city was unable to keep up with the swift population expansion throughout the area in the 1890's.  Although public schools were being erected as rapidly as possible, there was not room for all the students.  On September 13, 1893 The New York Times reported "When the free schools opened Monday, hundreds of parents asked to have their children admitted and were refused because all the desks in every room were occupied."

Public School Superintendent John Jasper said "The Board of Education cannot be blamed, for it is anxious and does everything it can to provide more accommodations.  The reason is that the districts have grown more rapidly than we could get the city to put up buildings."

And so the Catholic St. Monica's School was suddenly besieged by non-Catholic parents.  After being turned away from the public schools 180 children appeared at the doors of St. Monica's School.  More applied the next day, according to The New York Times.

The Rev. James J. Dougherty, pastor of St. Monica's Church, told reporters "Most of the children who came to us for instruction were children of Bohemians, for whom there were not accommodations at the public schools.  We have about six or seven Hebrew children who are attending our parochial school for the same reason."

Early in 1900 Patrick J. Monohan opened a saloon around the corner on First Avenue.  He cleverly circumvented the excise laws prohibiting a saloon within 200 feet of a school.  He argued was that St. Monica's School sometimes leased its library to charitable or religious organizations for meetings.  The New-York Tribune reported that he contended the practice "prevented the building from being included in the phrase of the law reading 'occupied exclusively as a school-house.'"  The case ended up in the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court where, on February 23, Monahan lost his liquor license.

Thirteen-year-old Johnnie Buckley and two other boys, William and James Hoolihan, were on their way to school on November 3, 1914 when suddenly Johnnie dropped to the pavement, dead from a gunshot.  It appeared that he had been the innocent victim of gang fighting.  Police hauled in more than 20 boys between 14 to 18 years old known to be members of the "North Pole" and the 83rd Street Gang for questioning.  The detectives got no where as none of them would admit to having knowledge of the shooting.

The Hollihan brothers provided a clear description of the boy "who drew a cheap 22-calibre revolver and shot the Buckley boy during the battle of the gangs," reported The Evening World.  The suspect was around 17-years old, "though still wearing knickers.  He was dressed in a brown suit and had a brown hat," wrote the newspaper.  Both boys were certain they could identify the culprit.

Unable to extract any information from the hoodlums, police took a different tact.  "To-day the detectives have allied with them a keener force than their own--the school children of St. Monica's Parochial School," reported The Evening World.  "More than 2,000 youngsters have promised they will be on the lookout for the murderer of little Johnnie Buckley and the channels of school information to which they have access may prove more fruitful than those open to the detectives."

It was the Hoolihan brothers' description that cracked the case.  A few nights later Lieutenant Detective Cousin noticed a boy who matched the description "standing with a band of boys who are known in Yorkville as 'The Jolly Six,'" reported The Evening World on November 9.  Cousin "shadowed" the gang until he was certain enough of the identity to arrest 15-year old William Salz.

Salz denied he had anything to do with the murder for more than a day.  Finally on November 9 he tearfully confessed.  "I didn't mean to do it," he said.  He claimed a group of boys were having "a make-believe battle," and "I had a pistol, which I had found in a vacant lot, and I pulled it out and pulled the trigger.  I intended shooting in the air, but I didn't."

William's mother came to his defense.  "He was such a kind-hearted boy that he used to feed the sparrows that perched out on the fire escape.  How could a boy like that be shooting off a gun to kill some one?"  Salz was arrested for murder.

Nine-year old Carol Ann Staycer attended St. Monica's School in 1952 when she startled the sports community with her uncanny knowledge of professional football.  The Daily News held a contest to pick the winners of the 15 games played on Saturday, October 11.  The following Monday the newspaper reported "She was the only one in the entire field to name all winners on an upset studded card that baffled the sharpest students of football form."

The second-grader won $500--about $4,900 today.  Her mother said they would save it for her education, noting "We're hoping she'll eventually be able to go through high school and college," although she admitted there was another priority, as well.  "It will go for Winter clothes for her and her sister."

A girls' group within the school was known as St. Monica's Girls Social Club.  Through it the girls learned the values of civic responsibility and neighborhood help.  One of its annual activities was the donating of toys to the Christmas Toy Chest
which provided gifts to the needy.  

On December 12, 1957 The Daily News reported "Last year Pamela Clemens, 7, came to The News and gave Santa Claus a gift for an underprivileged child" with the St. Monica's Girls Social Club.  "This year, Pamela was missing from the bright-eyed aggregation that brought gifts to Santa...Death took her from her young companions last May."  In tribute, the little girls donated all their toys that year in Pamela's name.

By the 1970's the avenues around St. Monica's School had become busy thoroughfares.  In June 1974 alone four school children were hit by vehicles while trying to cross York Avenue.  When pleas for a traffic agent at the intersection went unheeded, parents revolted.  On June 14 the Daily News reported on a "morning demonstration by several hundred mothers and children to get a policeman assigned to 79th St. and York Ave. to direct traffic during school hours."  The women, who impeded rush-hour traffic, were successful and a traffic policeman was promised.   

The protest was not without incident.  "At one point in the demonstration, an angry woman who was prevented from getting to work got into a minor scuffle with a demonstrator," reported the Daily News.

By 1981 the building became home to the Caedmon School, an independent Montessori-based elementary facility founded in 1962.  The school serves students through fifth grade.  The institution takes it name from the early English poet.

many thanks to reader Holly Tooker for suggesting this post