Magazine article Momentum

St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic School Honors Traditions of the Old World While Equipping Students to Succeed in the New One

Magazine article Momentum

St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic School Honors Traditions of the Old World While Equipping Students to Succeed in the New One

Article excerpt

Passaic's only Catholic elementary school preserves Eastern Rite traditions while welcoming all

Normally, when answering questions from parents who have come to sign up their child in a Catholic school, one does not expect to be asked, "Are you-Catholic?" At St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic School, however, the question is met with a patient chuckle, followed by what sometimes turns into a lengthy commentary on the Byzantine rite, the history of the school and some Ukrainian history, as well.

The confusion is understandable. Our unassuming, cozy little brick building sits next to a large, domed church (which one could easily mistake for Orthodox), with an imposing Byzantine mosaic of St. Nicholas over the entrance. In the school hallway, one notices the Byzantine cross flanked on either side by icons of St. Nicholas and of a Guardian Angel watching over children. And while speaking with the pastor or the principal, one will inevitably hear passing schoolchildren greet them with "Slava Isusu Christu"-the Ukrainian Catholic greeting, "Glory be to Jesus Christ."

The history of the parish goes back to 1910, when it was formed to serve Ukrainian immigrants working in the textile mills of Passaic, New Jersey, a major industrial hub of the era. Even back then, the Sister Servants of Mary Immaculate strove to provide basic literacy education-often at night, in a time when child-labor laws were still being fought over. It wasn't until 1949 that the parish had the need or the resources to create a permanent day school to meet the needs of the flood of Ukrainian families escaping war-torn Europe and the Iron Curtain. The parish of St. Nicholas became their haven, a new village and community to provide the security of common language, history and tradition, while St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic School became the gateway for their children, a place where the new generation could be raised with the cultural and religious traditions of the Old World, and with the education and skills to succeed in the new one.

As with many immigrant communities, the success of attaining the American Dream became the source of the community's gradual decline. As children grew up, went to college and bought homes in the suburbs, the small school's population decreased by half, from 225 in the 1960s to roughly 100 in the 1980s. And then, an interesting thing happened. The population has stabilized at around that one hundred mark for roughly the past 30 years. Many parents who themselves graduated from St. Nicholas made it a point to settle within commuting distance of the church and school, and several actually drive 24 miles round trip to bring their children to the little school they love.

The demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 opened a new gateway to immigration and the school once again is the first stepping-stone into American society for a new generation of children. This time, however, the mix is different, because the school population today consists of second or thirdgeneration Ukrainian-Americans, sitting next to Ukrainian immigrants "just off the plane," who are sitting next to other Eastern-European immigrants seeking the comfort of a Slavic language or culture-from Poland or Georgia, for example-as well as a mix of neighborhood children of Mexican, Central- or South-American or African-American extraction. The fabric of the school is becoming as richly tapestried as the embroidered ritual cloths adorning the icons in the church next door.

Retaining the Traditions

One of the challenges, of course, is retaining the Ukrainian culture and religious traditions that have been the raison d'etre of the school, while embracing populations of different backgrounds. At assembly in the morning, two students hold the American and Ukrainian flags, and the students recite the Pledge of Allegiance and sing both the American and Ukrainian national anthems. After a month or two in the school, students and teachers of all nationalities can be seen mouthing at least some of the Ukrainian lines. …

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