How one priest got wealthy Catholics to start a school for the poor

How one priest got wealthy Catholics to start a school for the poor

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Started with the help of residents of Chappaqua, the San Miguel Academy in Newburgh helps underserved boys break the cycle of poverty.
Seth Harrison, sharriso@lohud.com

Henry Garcia remembers his fourth-grade teacher being irritated and impatient. 

“I’d just transitioned from a bilingual class, but my teacher was expecting me to be at the same level as other students right from the start,” said Garcia, now 21. His parents, immigrants from Mexico, worked in a factory in Newburgh, New York, about 60 miles north of New York City on the Hudson River.

“There was no support. My parents couldn’t help me. My dad had stopped schooling after second grade, and my mom didn’t study beyond ninth grade,” said Garcia. “There was no after-school support and no one to help me with my homework.”

Garcia said transferring to the San Miguel Academy, an all-boys, faith-based independent middle school in Newburgh, was a game changer. He is now a senior at Fairfield University in Connecticut.

He is one of the earliest graduates of the academy, established in 2006 by the Rev. Mark Connell, then a weekend pastor at the Church of St. John and St. Mary in Chappaqua. The wealthy hamlet 30 miles north of New York City counts Bill and Hillary Clinton among its residents.

Back then, Connell’s weekdays were spent teaching at the College of Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, while his weekends were devoted to celebrating mass at the church in Chappaqua.

“Here I was in one of the poorest cities in America Monday through Friday, and I was in one of the most affluent communities — with one of the best school districts in the country — Saturday and Sunday,” said Connell. “I was quite astonished by the depths of poverty I saw in Newburgh, and as an educator, I kept asking myself what I could do to alleviate the obvious poverty that kids have to endure here. And education is one way to break the cycle of poverty.”

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During his sermons in Chappaqua, Connell would often reference the needs he saw while working in Newburgh, where 31 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. 

In 2004, Connell spoke to his congregants about starting a tuition-free middle school in Newburgh. He wanted to intervene with students while they were still young enough to turn around their lives. He noted the Jesuits — a Catholic order known for education — believe age 10 is when children make life-changing decisions. 

His congregants in Chappaqua were eager to help. His initial plan was to start a co-ed school, but he learned of a plan underway to start an all-girls school in the area.

An informal dinner of 50ended with 20 people signing up to serve on the board of trustees to get the San Miguel Academy of Newburgh off the ground.

By 2006, the all-boys school, which primarily serves low-income African American and Hispanic students, was up and running, with 12 students enrolled in fifth grade. Classes were held in an annex building of the First United Methodist Church in Newburgh. (The academy recently moved into a former parochial school, which it hopes to eventually purchase.)

The school also draws volunteers from the Episcopalian and Presbyterian churches in the Lower Hudson Valley.

San Miguel relies on fundraising. It receives no money from the archdiocese or the government. “We don’t consider ourselves a Catholic school but rather a faith-based independent school,” said Connell. 

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The list of supporters has grown from 300 in the first year to more than 2,500 donors and stretches well beyond Chappaqua, to throughout Westchester and Connecticut. One of the earliest supporters was Vanessa Williams, the recording artist and actress from Chappaqua.

Connell recalls walking the streets of Newburgh to convince parents to give his new middle school a try.

The initiative has since evolved into a “12-year human services program,” which not only places students in high schools, including private and parochial, but also provides after-school support and services to access college. 

This year, two students from the initial 2006 class graduated college, one with a degree in sports management and the other in accounting. Many are on track to graduate college next year.

A total of 184 boys have benefited from San Miguel. 

The school has also attracted its share of generous benefactors, including members of the Mara family, co-owners of the Giants football team.

“As a football family, we understand the great importance of shaping and inspiring young men and the need for discipline and belief in something greater than ourselves,” said Ann Cacase-Mara.

Connell considers it a calling.

Growing up in Poughkeepsie, Connell said he’d transferred out of Catholic school to a public school so he could attend the same school as his friends.

“God got even with me,” joked Connell, of his eventual journey into priesthood and now running a faith-based school.

But his mother has a different take.

“She told me that in the public school system, I had exposure to a great amount of diversity as a young boy,” said Connell. “And that made me more empathetic.”

For Garcia, the Fairfield University senior, the extended school hours at San Miguel, from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., changed everything. On Saturdays, there were book clubs and test prep to get into high school.

From San Miguel, Garcia was admitted to Canterbury School, a prep school in New Milford, Connecticut, before moving on to Fairfield.

Currently applying to law schools, Garcia said he likes to think of himself as a success story.

“Although I don’t have much resources right now,” he said. “I know one day I’ll be able to give back with my law degree.”

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Follow Swapna Venugopal Ramaswamy on Twitter: @SwapnaVenugopal 

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