Many looked nervous, and while some looked glad or sad, even the happiest seemed to understand the significance of this moment, and how the Class of 2013 differed from all classes before it.
These students would be the last to ever graduate from HFA as the school shuts its doors for the last time after 88 years.
While most graduates struggle to overcome the transition from high school to the next step in their lives, many in the past could return to their alma mater as alumni, knowing that the school and its traditions remained intact.
But these students will retain HFA only as a memory.
The Board of Trustees announced in April that they could no longer sustain the operating expenses at the school because of low enrollment rates.
Five years ago, the Sisters of St. Joseph, who founded the school in 1925, said that they would close the doors after the 2008-2009 school year.
The sisters said this was due to reduced enrollment and the continued demands of running the school.
Over the previous decade, the school graduated less than 50 students per year, down from more than 1,000 in the 1980s.
Although parents, teachers, alumni, and community leaders came together to keep the doors open, enrollment numbers did not rise. At the time, the national economy collapsed.
Teachers, long associated with the school, struggled to keep from tears as they spoke prior to the graduation ceremonies.
Graduation is usually an emotional moment when teachers say farewell to graduates who go off to face the wider world. But this year, they were saying good-bye to a school as well and a change of life that will hit many only when the summer comes to an end.
Principal Mary Tremitiedi—who came on three years ago—said she had hoped the school would make it, and felt sad about its closing.
“This is a terrific school,” she said, unable to keep the emotion from her voice. “But the finances just didn’t work out.”
Jennifer Mulcahy, chair of the Board of Trustees for HFA, said the graduation marks a milestone in the lives of the 39 graduating girls.
“Sadly, the school is closing 88 years of tradition that many of us here have been apart of,” she said.
Boys from St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City—a school that has had a long association with HFA—sent over bracelets that said, “We support Holy Family,” as a tribute to the school and a show of support for its students.
As the girls made their way down the aisle, parents applauded, and snapped pictures. Also in the crowd were siblings from lower grades who will be attending other schools next year.
Mulcahy in her invocation said the class carried with it the core beliefs they learned at HFA.
“The unofficial motto of Holy Family is that we are a family and we will always be,” she said. “It never really ends, but continues on in our hearts.” She encouraged the graduates to be bold: “It is true that fortune favors the bold.”
She encouraged them not to waste time being afraid but to focus on becoming bold and confident women.
“You are children of God and have a right to be here and make your mark,” she said.
Tremitiedi said the 39 girls earned offers of $5 million in college scholarships.
Bishop Thomas Donato said he had mixed emotions. As lead bishop in Hudson County for the last nine years, he said each year HFA has invited him to be part of their graduation ceremonies.
“We’ve done our best to make sure that Catholic education would remain in the city of Bayonne and be available to young ladies from beyond the city,” he said. “It has to be part of God’s plan and that’s the only thing I can say that we can accept.”
He called this year’s graduation ceremony one of transition.
We are family
“Holy Family Academy is itself a family,” Salutatorian Alexis Marie Ogbin said, picking up on the theme. “It is because of our family’s caring, dedication, and support that we have made it here to our graduation.”
Near tears as she spoke, she struggled to continue, saying that it was this support of the school and those involved in that have allowed these graduates to become women of vision.
“You have raised us to be the best that we can be, and to be leaders,” she said. “You were there for us, always ready to show us unconditional love.”
She said the school taught core values.
“You have taught us that nothing worthwhile comes easily and that hard work pays off,” she said.
She encouraged students from other grades who are moving on to other schools next year to retain the spirit of HFA.
“As a freshman at Holy Family like many of us, I never thought I would be here tonight,” she said. “People always say that high school flies by, so enjoy it. As a class at Holy Family, we’ve gotten to know each other, made friends, and even made best friends, and the most important thing we became is family. We have formed memories that will last forever and bonds that cannot be broken. We became sisters and just as any sisters do, we laughed, joked, disagreed, and argued, but when it came down to it, we were there for each other.”
And as their time ends at HFA and the school closes its doors, she said they should look at their time as a treasure to be preserved in their memories.
“Let us never forget the values we learned at Holy Family Academy,” she said.
A long-awaited day
“I can’t believe this day has finally come,” said Valedictorian Erica Yvonne Turcotte. “It seemed like graduation was a long way away when I and my fellow seniors walked through Holy Family’s doors our freshman year.
She reflected on some memories and some firsts for the school such a trip taken with the Big Sister Little Sister program, where seniors connect with incoming freshmen.
She reflected on class pep rallies, the class retreat, the prom, and other events, and she reflected on the last things they did as a class. She said she would not have met many of the girls if not for Holy Family, since many came together here from different grammar schools.
She credited teachers who taught them valuable lessons.
“Beyond the classroom we learned a lot of life lessons over the last four years,” she said. “The most important lesson I learned is to never give up on your dreams. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.”
She said graduates from this class are going to college to study everything from fine art to culinary art, and she said if they do what they are really passionate about they can never go wrong.
“Because ten years from now, we can be doing a job that gets us through the day or we can be doing something we really love,” she said. “Although this is the last year, Holy Family is a part of us, and something we will carry with us the rest of our lives.”
Al Sullivan may be reached at email@example.com.