BUCKING ALL TRENDS, ST. PETER’S SCHOOL, BELLEVILLE, IS THRIVING AS OTHER CATHOLIC SCHOOLS CLOSE

It’s no secret Catholic schools, especially here in New Jersey, are closing at an alarmingly high rate. One only needs to look in our readership area to find the casualties. Yet one Catholic school, also in our backyard, is bucking the trend, remaining open, alive and well — thriving, in fact. And a lot of it is because of one man’s refusal to see the school fold.

The school — St. Peter’s in Belleville. The man — pastor of the parish, the Rev. Ivan Sciberras.

Before we get into how and why St. Peter’s is thriving, let’s first take a look at how it’s remained open, perhaps one might say, miraculously.

We’ll go back to 2020. The country was in the midst of COVID-19. There was so much uncertainty. One thing that was absolutely certain, however, was that irrespective of the pandemic, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Newark was going to close 18 schools. On the list — St. Peter’s.

When Father Ivan got word, he knew he had to act fast.

“There was little time to make decisions,” he says. “We know, once a school is closed, it never reopens.”

With that concept in mind, Father Ivan did something almost unparalleled — he told his “boss,” Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin, the archbishop of Newark, he was not going to allow St. Peter’s to close. Drop that closure number to 17.

Call it hutzpah, call it courageous, call it whatever else comes to mind, but Father Ivan concluded the parish would assume full financial responsibility for keeping the school open. That meant there would be no more fiscal support from the archdiocese, something many Catholic schools rely upon, in today’s world, to remain open.

The responsibility of the school would now, in totality, fall squarely on Father Ivan’s shoulders — a risk few others similar positions would ever dare take. And yet here we are, on the precipice of the 2021-2022 academic year, and St. Peter’s School will once again open its doors come September, something it’s done for a century-and-a-half-plus.

And it all comes back to Father Ivan’s courageous decision to say “no” to the cardinal (in the kindest way, of course.)

Now, Father Ivan, in addition to being fearless, is also an epic writer. In fact, a perusal back to all the bulletins for the parish reveals he loves to write a weekly column. Many other pastors don’t exactly take the time — and if they do, they’re dull. But Father Ivan takes this part of his ministry seriously — and his transparency is extraordinary — we’d say likely unparalleled in the entire archdiocese.

Last summer, he was as honest as he’s ever been after making the painstaking decision to keep St. Peter’s School going, in a column written Aug. 9, 2020, to his parishioners.

“I think you have the right to know that up to early this week, St. Peter’s School was to be among those schools to be shut down. Very difficult decisions had to be taken just a few days ago,” Father Ivan wrote. “While many would agree St. Peter’s School is a great place to receive a solid Catholic formation and the school has been run most efficiently and responsibly, the lower enrollment meant that a big shortfall could ensue by the end of the coming school year.

“With school closure seeming inevitable, I have assured the Archdiocese of Newark that I will take full-responsibility for the finances of the school for the coming school year. It will be run completely as a parochial school, as it was until seven years ago when the ‘Lighting the Way’ initiative gave a great say to the archdiocese in many aspects of the operations of the school.”

His decision was based on several concepts. He already mentioned the school, once closed, would never reopen. He believed it was wholly unfair to the students, parents and faculty that they’d have no school or no job so late in the game. And he feared alumni and supporters of the school would have been disappointed not to have been given a chance to help.

Put all this together and you’ve still got a school, with an enrollment of 134 (and the hopes it could hit 150 by Labor Day.)

Just a few months ago, 20 kids graduated as part of the 154th graduating class. The school told COVID-19 to proverbially shove it, and actually wound up closing more for inclement weather last academic year, seven times, than it did for COVID-related protocols, six times.

Financially, the school fared as well as it could have, with several fundraisers conducted by the Belleville council of the Knights of Columbus and with numerous families receiving partial scholarships to assist with tuition from the Inner City Scholarship Fund.

 

SO WHY A CATHOLIC EDUCATION?

With so many educational opportunities out there now, with strong public schools, numerous charter schools and even online-only options, it begs the question: Why a Catholic education when there’s a lot else out there without the price tag?

For Father Ivan, that answer is pretty simple.

“Catholic schools allow our teachers, our priests, our staff to be present for the children,” he says. “That is for the better. Also, a Catholic education empowers students to truly explore a liberal-arts education. To explore using their minds for critical thinking. With a smaller ambiance, it allows the students to have a much-greater sense of individualized attention. The whole family is involved in the process.”

But there’s more.

St. Peter’s is a rarity these days. The student-body is 95% Catholic (though non-Catholics are invited to attend.) And, since so many are Catholic, those kids make their sacraments without having to take CCD classes, catechism if you will.

First Holy Communion and first reconciliation (confession) come in the second-grade and Confirmation in eighth-grade.

“Many of our students deepen their faith as altar server, as well,” Father Ivan says. “They start at a young age, graduate from the school, then still serve Mass in high school.”

The students are additionally challenged by their teachers in many ways.

Father Ivan recalls when students in the eighth-grade were debating, in a social studies class led by teacher Brett Sagarese, whether a particular river belonged to India or Pakistan. This, among a lot else, is hardly traditional, but it helps prepare the kids for high school and beyond.

The school also works to offer positive male influences for the students, many of whom, unfortunately, don’t have such an experience in their home lives.

“All things equal, we might choose a male candidate for a position for this reason,” Father Ivan says.

None of this, of course, would be possible without leadership from the faculty, many of whom choose to teach in a Catholic school for a heck of a lot less money than they’d make in public schools.

“Their dedication is inspiring,” Father Ivan says of the faculty, led by Principal Phyllis A. Sisco. “We are blessed by our faculty.”

Indeed, St. Peter’s is blessed — and because of Father Ivan’s vision, we hope it’s blessed for another 154 years and beyond.

Want to know more about St. Peters School? Visit www.stpeterbelleville.org. Are you an alumnus looking to help? Call Father Ivan at the St. Peters rectory at (973) 751-2002, ext. 101, or send him an email to pastor@spbnj.org.

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Kevin A. Canessa Jr. is the editor of and broadcaster at The Observer, a place where he has served on and off since 2006. He is responsible for the editorial content of the newspaper and website, the production of the e-Newspaper, writing several stories per week (including the weekly editorial), conducting live broadcasts on Facebook Live, including a weekly recap of the news — and much more behind the scenes. Between 2006 and 2008, he introduced the newspaper to its first-ever blog — which included podcasts, audio and video. Originally from Jersey City, Kevin lived in Kearny until 2004, lived in Port St. Lucie. Florida, for four years until February 2016 and in March of that year, he moved back to West Hudson to return to The Observer full time. Click Here to send Kevin an email.