by Karen Hechler
This article was written in 2011, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Conn-Area Catholic School.
”If walls could talk” has always been a fascinating concept. Passing by a building of extended age and interesting architecture, you wonder what events have taken place there over the years. Such a building, a grand lady, stands proudly on Prospect Street in Connellsville, and she is celebrating her 100th birthday this year. At the present time, the building is known as Conn-Area Catholic School, but she has had other names during her long history. She is an extremely handsome brick structure and wears her years well. When you drive or walk by Conn-Area Catholic, you know that a great deal of pride and thought went into the construction of this building, which has always been a school.
Conn-Area Catholic began life as Immaculate Conception School, built under the leadership of the congregation of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, which is right next door. It was not unusual for a Catholic Church to also provide a Catholic education for the youth by building a school near to the church.
The first mention of the building now known as Conn-Area Catholic Elementary was dated Oct. 24, 1910. It stated that Father John T. Burns announced that morning that the contract for the new school on Prospect Street was to be let that week, and the contractor, Bernard O’Connor, had begun excavating for the foundation. An article in the local “Daily Courier” dated July 28, 1911, stated that the parochial school in connection with Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church has ” a new building in course of construction, which is to be one of the finest in the state.” The building was officially opened on Wednesday, Feb. 5, 1912, and then formally dedicated on Feb. 21, 1912. With simple ceremonies, the new school was opened on the morning of Feb. 5, 1912. At 8:30 a.m. the children assembled at the church where Father Burns officiated at Mass. Then the children marched in a body to the new building where ceremonies continued. A short talk by Father Burns pointed out that numerous opportunities presented by this new building. Lessons were held as usual for the students. The public was invited Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday to visit and inspect the structure. Father Burns issued the invitation. Many people who had attended that special event, took advantage of the invitation. The newspaper stated that there were about 300 pupils attending Connellsville parochial schools at that time.
Described in the local paper as “one of the most magnificent parochial school buildings in Western Pennsylvania,” the school cost $60,000 to construct. It was constructed of brick and stone, and was “fireproof throughout with hygienic and sanitary equipment of the latest design.” The building was three stories high with 10 classrooms, kitchen, dining room, and assembly hall. It was listed as having frontage of 68 feet and being 108 feet in depth. At the time the building was opened, the gymnasium had not been fitted as yet. The equipment would be ordered shortly and then put in place. The new dining hall was to be dedicated on Feb. 12, 1912, when the Young Ladies Sodality of the church was giving a Colonial Tea and Dance. The proceeds of the tea went toward helping to pay a part of the church debt.
Originally the school provided education for the first eight years of formal schooling. According to the Immaculate Conception Church’s “Celebrating 125th Anniversary 1870-1995” booklet, pupils received, “free books and stationary in the full-accredited school” in 1912. The booklet also stated that all church buildings were “free of debt and in very good condition.” The St. Joseph Sisters from Rutland, Vermont were brought to Connellsville to teach in the school. On June 25, 1913, Father Burns presented diplomas to the first graduates in the I.C. Church. In 1913, the sisters returned to the mother house in Vermont, and they were followed by the Benedictine Nuns. Due to the need for additional education in the 20th Century, Father Burns introduced a two year high school course in 1921. School started in the fall with 475 students in attendance being an increase of 60 students over the year before. There were 35 students in the new high school. Father Burns was succeeded by Father Henry Geibel. During Father Geibel’s pastorate, two more years of high school were added, and in 1930, the first senior class graduated with 12 members.
Currently, when you think of the educational process for children, you think of first an elementary school, then a middle school or junior high school, and finally a high school. Here was a school that ultimately housed grades one through twelve in the same building. In our area, it is quite unusual for a person to spend 12 years in the same school house. We have numerous people in Connellsville who will proudly tell you that they spent 12 years at I.C. Owls, owls being the mascot of Immaculate Conception High School.
When there were 12 grades in one building, I learned from alumni that the elementary students were confined basically to the first floor, while the older students made use of the second and third floors. Going into the building today, I wonder how that could have worked out, but I was assured that the system worked very well. I talked with Attorney Carmine Molinaro, Judy Parr Forsythe, Steve Conko, and Dr. Richard Grimaldi, all of whom graduated from I.C. High School. I also had the use of “The Immaculata 1938,” the yearbook of Thomas Mullaney, which his son, David Mullaney, gave to me to use for this article.
One story that all of the alumni told me had to do with the auditorium on the third floor. The two inside walls in this room could slide up and down. When the walls were lowered, this made a classroom, the senior homeroom. When the walls were raised the classroom became part of the auditorium. I was told that when there was an assembly, the seniors could sit right in their homeroom seats. That must have been a big deal because it was still on their minds after all these years. (And yes, after climbing the steps all the way to the third floor for a Conn-Area event, I can appreciate the seniors being happy to have already been in the auditorium.)
The stories concerning the number of nuns teaching in the school were amazing. I was told that as many as 24 nuns lived in the convent next to the school. The convent had four floors and at one time it was necessary to house six of the sisters in the attic of the convent. The nuns were paid $90.00 a year, which went to their order. Today, the only nun at Conn-Area is Sister Beatrice Ann Parenti, who teaches some of the religion classes, and oversees the Extended Day Care Program.
At one time, if your child was a member of I.C. Parish he or she went to school at I.C. School for free, but parents were supposed to put enough in the collection plate to cover tuition. The other children outside of I.C. Parish had to pay tuition.
One person who seemed to attract the attention of all the people that I spoke with was the maintenance man or custodian by the name of Auggie Matiba. Evidently this man lived in the basement of the school, right next to the music room. I was told that when he cooked his meals during the day, the fragrance drifted throughout the building. That would be enough to get the students’ attention. Students also shared treats from their lunches with Auggie. I was also told that his sister was a nun who lived in the convent next door. Perhaps one of Auggie’s duties was tending to the heating system at the school, which was attached to the heat for the church. The church was heated by steam conducted through an underground system from the heating plant in the school. This system was replaced in 1993, when the church installed a new gas furnace.
I wondered if the school offered numerous classes in a building with limited classrooms. The Business Courses offered: bookkeeping, typing, accounting and shorthand. The Academic Courses offered up to: 4 years of Latin, plane and solid geometry, physics, chemistry, algebra, trigonometry, English, history, etc. Physics and chemistry were taught on the third floor in a lab fully equipped with gas and water at each work station. There was a library on the third floor, and sewing was also taught. Gym class was held in the basement. An interesting insight into the Library came from Eleanor (Skippy) Bailey Robbins, who attended I.C. School for grades one through eight. She said the Library was a long wood and glass enclosed structure, not really a room. It was right in the hallway before the auditorium and reminded her of a small train car. It is still there today.
In the 1938 Immaculata Yearbook, I was surprised to find that the school, with 27 graduating seniors, had a football squad. They played a seven game schedule, which included a school in West Virginia and a school in Cumberland, Maryland. They played St. Luke’s in Pittsburgh, North Union High, and All Saints in Masontown. The Owls had two victories, four defeats and one tie in the 1937-38 season.
In the area of basketball, the Owls enjoyed seven victories and eight defeats in the 1937-38 season. I was pleasantly surprised that the Owls played against Rockwood, my hometown. The team actually beat Rockwood away on Rockwood’s home court. The Owls also played against Connellsville. The home basketball games were held at the Armory on Washington Avenue, where there were bleachers for the spectators. In the yearbook, I learned that the school had a senior class play, a junior class play, a glee club, study halls, debate club, art, and cheerleaders. Ernie Ruggierri gave dancing lessons to all the Freshmen Class. Dances were held in the auditorium. So you see, it sounds like every other high school.
George Bailey, class of 1948, is the first of three generations of his family to attend all or a portion of their schooling in this building. He and his four siblings all graduated from I.C. High School when it first opened. Daughters, Pat and Nancy, also attended some of their elementary years in this school. Nancy Bailey Jacobyansky’s two sons, Michael and Nicholas have completed their first six years of schooling at Conn-Area Catholic, and her niece, Lauren Kosslow, is in the last sixth grade to graduate from the school this year, 2010-11.
George remembered that Father Geibel would hand out the report cards to each student, commenting on the progress of the students. He recalled that Father Cullen was a priest at I.C. Church and the basketball coach. He stated that the football team would practice at a field near the current Connellsville Township Fire Hall, or a field behind the hospital on Murphy Avenue. The games were played at the Association Grounds. Students had the option of walking home for lunch. The church had daily Mass and some children who sang for Mass attended each morning. All the children attended Mass on Friday, and they would walk from the school to the church by grades and sit with their class at Mass. The girls would sit on the “Mary” side of the church and the boys on the opposite side.
His daughters, Pat Bailey Zembower, Nancy, and Eleanor, all pointed out the school office on the second floor. It seemed to small children, like a “crow’s nest” on a ship. There was a large stairwell leading to the office that was perched up an additional flight of steps. The office hugged the wall with an open railing leading to the office. The girls felt very intimidated when they had to go to the office. Another memory was not being able to eat breakfast before Friday Mass. You were not allowed to eat for three hours before Mass. So the mothers had to pack two lunches per child on Friday. Usually, breakfast consisted of hard boiled eggs and soggy toast, which was eaten in the classroom, but it tasted good because they were famished.
Girls had to have their heads covered for Mass, and they kept a “chapel cap” in their book bags or purses. If they forgot this small lace doily-shaped fabric, then they had to go to Mass with a Kleenex bobby-pinned to their heads, which was supplied by one of the nuns. The nuns still wore the long black habits during some phases of the daughters’ education, and they commented on how the habits covered everything but the hands and faces of the nuns. The children wondered if the nuns had hair. One of the nuns also kept her hands covered, so the youngsters wondered if she had hands. Eleanor recalled that when she was in fourth grade there was great concern when Miss Mongellusso came to teach because she was a lay teacher. By the time Eleanor was in seventh grade, Sister Pierre came with the “New Habit” when you could actually see some of her hair! So things were beginning to change. One item remembered by the Bailey sisters was the respect that was given to Father Marzhauzer when he visited the school. Nancy said that when he came, the children would stop whatever they were doing and give him their complete attention. Sister Pat stated that when he came, “everyone would stand extra tall and the nuns made it seem like it was God himself standing there just by their sense of respect and stuff.”
Changes have occurred in recent years. The building known as Immaculate Conception School became Conn-Area Catholic School in 1966, when Geibel Memorial High School opened. The school consisted of grades one through eight once again Conn-Area Catholic School was a consolidation of the grade schools from St. Rita, St. John the Evangelist and Immaculate Conception Parishes. In the school year 2006-07, the seventh and eighth grades went to Geibel High School, which became Geibel Middle-High School. That same year, the Pre-School program was added to Conn-Area curriculum. Kindergarten had been added some years before. I.C. School and Conn-Area School have had a long history of nuns who served as the principals of the school; Sister Catherine Meinert being the last of the sisters in that capacity. Mrs. Cecilia Solan became the first lay principal in 2007.
We understand that this will be the last year for this proud old building. Age and other changes have taken their toll. Everything happening this year is for the last time in this building. That is sad for such a building where outstanding education occurred for so long. My sister, Deborah Hechler Mullaney, lamented that her recent Ethnic Festival during Catholic Schools Week would be the last at Conn-Area Catholic. Many students have enjoyed this event, and that is only one of hundreds of special events throughout the years that were held in this building.
I would like to end with quotes from Eleanor Zembower and Nancy Jacobyansky. Eleanor stated, “I also remember in a weird way that as soon as I walked through those doors I always felt kind of safe; I don’t know if it was the worn wooden floors or that the interior never changed, but it was always kind of comforting, and I imagine it might still feel that way today.”
Nancy’s comments are, “This building, this school, this home has held countless memories for several generations of students who began their educational journey here. As a student, as a parent, and now as a visitor to the school, I have always felt welcome when I walk through the doors, like coming home to family.”
(Special thanks to Sister Mary Agnes Kirsch, Thomas Rusnack, and the Carnegie Free Library Staff for some of the information used in this article.)