On a chilly Friday in late February, the students of Immaculata Academy, an all-girl’s Catholic high school in Hamburg, went to school as they normally do in their navy skirts and ties, and with smiles on their faces. But, for most, the day would turn into one of the worst of their lives.
That afternoon, about 180 students and 45 faculty and staff members found out that they soon would have to leave a place they all called home.
When the dismissal bell rang at 2:07 p.m., students were hurriedly ushered out of the building as the faculty and staff gathered for an emergency meeting.
Thinking nothing of the situation, students left for home.
Meanwhile faculty and staff members wept, having found out that their careers at the academy – ranging from just one year to nearly 30 years – were to come to a close in June.
Having had no prior warning, the faculty members were left with just one question: What do we do now?
For the students and their families, the unexpected news came in an email.
General Minister of the Franciscan Sisters of Saint Joseph, Sister Ann Marie Hudzina, wrote, "Based on critical analysis of data collected over (the) years, it is with deep sadness that I wish to inform you that the decision has been made to close Immaculata Academy in June of 2016."
The Franciscan Sisters, after careful consideration, had decided to dissolve their sponsorship of Immaculata due to financial decline.
Students took to social media to express their sorrow and, for some, their anger. The news spread like wildfire and some even found out via social media, despite the fact that Sister Hudzina’s email asked students and families not to release this information on social media yet.
After a grief-filled weekend, students gathered in the school auditorium on Monday morning for yet another heart-wrenching reminder that their school would be gone in a matter of months.
In the months after the announcement, slowly but surely, Immaculata students gained back the sparkle in their eyes. The rest of the year – filled with the last prom, All-Catholic competitions, and spring play – flew by.
By the end of the year, leaving Immaculata didn’t feel like the pain after ripping a Band-Aid off. As students left the nearly abandoned building after the end of the year celebration, some compared it to a movie in which a long-term couple broke up, and as they looked back one last time, they realized that it will never be over; they will always be a part of each other wherever they go.
Now, roughly nine months after the announcement, students and faculty have found new homes.
Cassandra Grizanti had only been at Immaculata for five months as a senior civics and psychology teacher when she found out the news.
"I was devastated," she said. "I had fallen in love with the school and realized I would only be able to enjoy it for one short year."
When she was just starting out at the academy, Grizanti quickly got involved as a director in the school’s musical production of "Little Women."
"I think the musical was another way that helped me feel like I was a part of the IA family. I already knew the school was special, but allowing me to direct made me know I had found a home," she said.
Grizanti now teaches at an area charter school. But, it’s no secret that she, and many others, miss Immaculata every day.
"I miss my students the most. They were the reason I went to work every day," she said.
Other teachers ended up scattered all around Western New York in various walks of life. Most continued teaching, others have retired. Many teachers stayed in the Catholic high school realm. Four long-term teachers from Immaculata, with from eight to 30 years of service, even ended up together at Mount Saint Mary Academy in Kenmore.
Though it is a hike for most, many previous Immaculata students, like the four teachers, headed up north to the Mount, as well. Nearly 30 students chose the Mount as their home for the next one to three years; more than chose any other school, public or private, in the Western New York area.
Students are traveling from as far as Perrysburg and Fredonia for their education.
But not every student stuck to the Catholic education that they all were familiar with after June of last school year.
Kyra Krasowski, 17, of Orchard Park, chose to go to Orchard Park High School for her senior year.
"The first week was the only time the difference was truly noticeable, but I’ve gotten used to my routine now. It doesn’t seem to matter my school is five times bigger than it was," she said.
Kyra, having previously attended public school, did not have a hard time adjusting to the big things after spending three years at Immaculata, but she misses the little things.
"I miss the fact that I knew everyone and no one would care if they saw my best friend giving me a piggyback ride in the lobby after school, because that’s just what we would do," she said.
This seems to be a common issue for many of the displaced students and faculty.
Leaving Immaculata was never just about missing the beige brick building, but about missing the relationships built within its walls.
The camaraderie that came with events like Spirit Week, where tireless hours were spent perfecting every last detail; hearing the chant, "once a bear, always a bear;" and simply chatting with a favorite teacher after school was irreplaceable.
Whether the Franciscan tradition was enjoyed for one, three, or 30 years, Immaculata was, a home to thousands of young women and faculty.
Immaculata is not just 5138 South Park Avenue. It is a legacy of an education of distinction, a community of religious growth, and above all, a sisterhood with memories to last a lifetime.
Deanna Garwol attended Immaculata Academy. She now is a senior at Mount St. Mary Academy.