By Sabina Mollot
In a day and age when many Catholic institutions, in particular churches and schools are disappearing, one has managed to not only remain financially secure but thrive, and is now celebrating its 125th anniversary.
That institution would be the Epiphany School, where enrollment recently increased by 5 percent and
where Cardinal Timothy Dolan will help celebrate the landmark anniversary with a special mass and reception later this month.
Jim Hayes, the school’s principal of 35 years, told Town & Village that he credits the school’s continued growth to a few factors.
One is a foundation that holds frequent fundraisers for parents and alumni. Another has been a steady level of support, financially and otherwise from parents, in part possible due to the school’s lower than average tuition for a parochial school — $7,000. Then there’s the recent launch of a program for three and four-year-olds at the school’s 28th Street building, which also houses grades 4-8. Students in grades K-3 learn at the 22nd Street facility near the church. The new program, meanwhile, has attracted more students, so much so that there’s a waiting list. In total, Epiphany has around 600 students, up from 250 in 1980.
This has meant, said Hayes, that the school is financially independent from the church, other than the fact that the church owns the school’s buildings.
Previously, the school’s student population had mostly come from Stuyvesant Town/Peter Cooper Village but at this time, kids from the ST/PCV community make up only about 40 percent of the student body. A small percentage of the students come from the outer boroughs, but most are still walking distance from school, and the new program for younger kids has attracted more families from the Murray Hill, Kips Bay and Turtle Bay neighborhoods.
“There are more and more kids from the East Side up to the 40s and 50s,” said Hayes. As for those in ST/PCV, the dwindling enrollment from there has mainly to do with rising rents, a pattern school officials first noticed a decade ago. “The writing on the wall has been there for a while,” said Hayes. “Those guys are getting priced out.”
Meanwhile, being situated near Gramercy Park, the school has always had a steady stream of Gramercy students. Gramercy Park itself hasn’t changed much though all the recent development of condo buildings in Gramercy has brought more families to the area.
For them, despite the crowding and other challenges faced by local public schools, the biggest draw to Epiphany is still the religious curriculum, said Hayes.
“We haven’t given up our Catholic identity,” he said. “We teach religion every day.”
Interestingly, at this time, ten percent of the school’s students aren’t even Catholic, but are, among other faiths, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist. Those students, said Hayes, “learn about the Catholic faith as a subject the same way they’d learn about literature. We’re not trying to convert them.”
And the diversity hasn’t seemed to hurt the school’s fundraising efforts.
A recent walkathon raised over $100,000 for the school’s foundation. A 125th anniversary reception for alumni in November attracted 350 people with many tickets priced at $125. For the past few years, there’s also been a car raffle. For this revenue earner, the foundation has managed to get a Mercedes at cost and then make money through the sale of $100 raffle tickets. Last time, 700 tickets were sold. Through these and other various fundraising efforts, which include golf games and basketball games, the school’s foundation has been pulling in $750,000-$900,000 a year.
John Link is the director of development for Epiphany’s foundation, which was launched in 1999. Since then, he said the foundation has held different types of fundraisers in the hopes of attracting supporters who are newer to Epiphany and the area and tend to give more as well as the more longterm supporters like parents and alumni who have less money but tend to give small amounts consistently. The latter group also tends to be helpful in the volunteering department, noted Link.
“They want to volunteer and they’re just very passionate individuals,” he said.
As for the money that gets raised, Hayes said Epiphany’s been able to provide educational tools for students, like iPads to do their work on as well as Smartboards in every classroom — items that are normally reserved for much pricier private schools. At Epiphany, all sixth, seventh and eighth graders get their own iPads to use, while for those in the younger grades, it’s one iPad for every two kids.
“So we’re really pushing the envelope with technology,” said Hayes.
The only challenge the school is currently facing, he said, is that more space is needed for more would-be students. For parents looking to get their kids to the top of the waiting list, it helps, said Hayes, to have some ties with the parish, or if they’re new to the area, ties to the parish where they’re from.
Epiphany kids, noted Hayes, tend to be involved in programs beyond their classes, like basketball on Saturdays or mass on Sundays.
“It’s a seven day week with basketball and mass,” he said, explaining what he feels the school’s identity has to separate it from other religious schools. “Other schools might not be so community based. Maybe they’re more transient-based. We’re like a suburban school in Manhattan.”
Anyone interested in attending the mass and reception to be attended by Cardinal Dolan, which will be held on January 18 at 5:30 p.m. at the Church of the Epiphany at 375 Second Avenue and 22nd Street, should call the school’s Office of Development at (212) 473-6158. Tickets are $60. Those looking to attend the mass only with Dolan should contact the church at (212) 475-1966 ahead of time.
This will be the last of the school’s 125th anniversary events, with the main one being the alumni reception in November, held at the Yale Club. (The Church of the Epiphany this year is celebrating its 146th anniversary.)
Epiphany School first opened its doors on September 10 of 1888 by principal Sister Mary Verena Fitzpatrick. On that first day of school, there were 84 girls and 60 boys.