Regina Gier graduated from Our Lady of Victory Elementary School nearly 80 years ago, yet she can still recall the molasses cookies baked each morning by the Sisters of St. Joseph and served fresh out of the oven to the pupils after morning Mass.
“They were an inch thick with raisins, and we could have as many as we wanted,” said Gier, who graduated in 1938. “They were the best cookies I ever had.”
Mary (Beamish) Donahue, 93, also remembered the cookies that warmed her school day. Donahue graduated in 1936 just one month before the death of the Rev. Nelson H. Baker, who founded Our Lady of Victory Institutions.
Both women share a mountain of memories created inside the beloved school located in Lackawanna on South Park Avenue near Ridge Road in the shadow of the OLV Basilica.
On Saturday more than 300 of the school’s graduates will gather at 4:30 p.m. in the historic basilica for a Mass to mark an all-class reunion 120 years in the making. A reception in the school at 2760 South Park will follow.
“We practically grew up in that church, and it was like growing up in an art museum,” said Gier, who is attending. “Nobody knows how many angels are in there.”
As Gier and Donahue sat at a cafeteria table in their old school one recent afternoon, they laughed like school girls over stories about their preferred nun or favorite ice cream shop that served Steel City Slush.
“We were forbidden to go to Economou’s, but we did,” said Donahue. “It was a great ice cream shop. Maybe it had an unsavory element or maybe it was a hangout or something, but it was only a block from the school.”
Sister Ellen O’Keefe, school principal for 46 years and a member of the Class of ’55, frequented the shop. “My sister and I used to come out to the novena every Friday, and then we’d stop over there for a Coke,” she said, joining Gier and Donahue at the table. “We’d put two straws in one Coke because that’s all we could afford.”
Gier talked about the Christmas programs where Father Baker distributed small boxes of ribbon candy to all the students.
“He handed them to us one-by-one and wished us a blessed Christmas,” said Gier. “I can’t remember if he came to hear us recite the Catechism. We had to memorize chapter and verse, and stand up and recite it. You know, our mothers would get up early and hear us.”
Since 1986, the OLV parish and Diocese of Buffalo have been working to attain canonization for Baker, said Thomas Lucia, director of public relations and special events for OLV Institutions. Baker has since been declared venerable.
Education was one of the tenets that guided Baker, who started the school in 1896 when it was called St. Patrick’s and had an enrollment of 56 students. Fed by a constant stream of immigrants who settled in the area, enrollment grew steadily. In 1906 it was renamed Our Lady of Victory School and by 1908 it served 234 students.
In 1921 a new building was built for 371 students. The year also marked the establishment of a coed high school, Our Lady of Victory Academy. When the high school closed in 1974, it was known as Baker Victory High School.
“Every room has a memory,” said O’Keefe, who announced her retirement in June. “We’re only 210 now, but there were times it was much larger.”
Not many parochial schools can claim 100 years of service, but Western New York is home to a surprising bank of century schools, said George Richert, communications director of the Diocese of Buffalo, including SS. Peter & Paul in Williamsville, founded by St. John Neumann before 1846; St. Mary of the Assumption in Lancaster, founded before 1847; and St. Joseph University School in Buffalo, founded in 1849. There’s also St. John the Baptist School in Kenmore, founded in 1837, which was closed for a few years.
“It’s part of my history and my family history,” said Lynn (Rogers) Dziak, whose seven brothers and sisters attended OLV Elementary School.
Her family’s immersion in the school played a huge role in her volunteering to steer the reunion. A surprising number of people have remained friends more than a half century since going to OLV, noted Dziak, who graduated in 1970. She pointed to the class of 1956, whose members are marking their 60th anniversary. She said 10 or 11 graduates still meet regularly.
Brian Gannon was born and raised above the funeral home his family runs on the corner of Ridge and Orchard Place. At age 59, he counts three generations of his family attending OLV Elementary School. His mother graduated in 1939. He graduated in 1971, and his three sons graduated in 2006, 2010 and 2012.
“There were nuns all over the place,” Gannon recalled. “Sister Rita Kane was my favorite. She came to my dad’s wake. She was nice, not your typical nun. Maybe it was the Irish in her, but she wasn’t a hard nun with a ruler in her hand.”
Gier liked Sister Othelia, known as a disciplinarian. “She was the best teacher I ever had,” said Gier, a retired English teacher. I learned more in the fifth grade than I think I’ve learned anywhere. Sister Othelia was so strict we didn’t move.”
Donahue tipped her hat to Sister De LaSalle, who shepherded Donahue and her friends back to OLV after they left to attend Lackawanna High School.
“Lackawanna had a better basketball team,” said the former cheerleader. “And they had more things to do so we begged our mothers and off we went. We lasted a week or two. Everything was so confusing to us. Nobody was praying.”