Niagara Catholic Junior-Senior High School has turned a crumbling strip of sidewalk into a virtual trip through Catholic school history.
The original 14-inch-thick concrete sidewalk (circa 1954), which stretches 162 feet from 66th Street to the school's front entrance, was replaced this fall after the school's insurer directed its trustees to rip it out and put a new one in for safety reasons.
That's when school Trustee George Edwards and Principal Bobby DiFrancesco came up with a way to replace it, pay for it and unify the history of local Catholic secondary schools. That history evolved from co-ed St. Mary's High School (1931-1959) into Bishop Duffy High School for boys (1946-1975) and Madonna High School for girls (1959-75), then morphed into co-educational Niagara Catholic in 1975 at the old Bishop Duffy building.
Edwards and DiFrancesco proposed to replace the walkway with a little brick road that contains the names of graduates engraved in some of the 16,000 bricks it took to create what the school now calls The Heritage Walk, said Maureen Olson, the school's director of development and alumni relations.
Former students had to pay $125 if they wanted their names etched in a 4-by-8-inch brick and $250 to have them etched in an 8-by-8-inch brick. About 600 former students answered the call. Six families paid $1,500 each for their names to be engraved in the six granite benches that line the north side of the walk. There also were other options, Olson said.
The money raised was enough to pay for the $60,000 project, a strategy that prompted the school's board of trustees to approve the project, Olson said.
School officials expect many more graduates will add their names to the bricks as time goes by.
"Much of the money will be used for upkeep and landscaping, and for things like scholarships and financial aid" to students, Olson said.
Erik Jewelers of Tonawanda is doing the engraving and will replace a blank brick with an engraved one whenever an alumnus orders one, said Olson. Those interested in a brick should call Olson at 283-8771.
The walkway will be dedicated during a special ceremony next spring.
Already, the walk is a trip through history.
On heading from the street up to Niagara Catholic, the names of many St. Mary's students appear on bricks around a granite square containing the St. Mary's High School seal. Further up, the Madonna seal appears ("Ladies before gentlemen," according to DiFrancesco) with the names of former Madonna students all about. Over halfway up, the Bishop Duffy seal appears with the names of old Duffy grads here and there. It ends as the Niagara Catholic seal, surrounded by former students' names, ushers one into the school.
Phil "The Count" Kontrabecki's name appears about halfway up. Kontrabecki's sure shot led Bishop Duffy to the 1962 Manhattan Cup basketball championship.
The name of the late Marine Lt. John P. Bobo is also there as part of a special memorial section. Bobo received the Medal of Honor for sacrificing his life in Vietnam in 1967.
The names are many and bring back memories as each step is taken, said Bettie Goodall, 83, a 1939 St. Mary's graduate.
"I like the idea because the older graduates who are left should remember what the school meant to them and continue to support Niagara Catholic," Goodall said. She purchased a brick in her family's name.
"I think we owe that," she said. "It was sad to see a number of the Catholic grammar schools close (like St. Joseph's and Sacred Heart) over the last few years."
Goodall said she never wants that to happen to Niagara Catholic.
She remembers her days at St. Mary's very clearly. "I graduated in 1939. I still have brick from St. Mary's (that once stood on Fourth Street), which I needle-pointed to remind me of it."
Unlike Duffy and Madonna, "It was co-ed, but the boys had to go up a stairway on one side of the building and the girls went up the other. In class, the boys sat in the back and the girls up front and never the twain shall meet," Goodall said.
She said she never liked the idea of boys and girls being separated and voiced her opinion before the Diocese of Buffalo made Bishop Duffy into an all boys school and Madonna into all girls school.
"That was the biggest mistake they ever made. It should have been one school. Niagara Catholic is the way it should be."