MERIDEN — Standing before more than 500 parishioners of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in January 1944, the Rev. Walter J. Lyddy announced plans to open a new parochial school next to the church.
Lyddy’s announcement, made during a banquet dinner celebrating the parish’s 50th anniversary, was met with enthusiastic applause from parishioners, who saw the new school as “another long step in the perfection of their parish,” according to newspaper archives.
At the time, Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church was the last Roman Catholic parish in the city to open its own parochial school. Lyddy, described as a zealous and ambitious leader, saw opening the school as one of his “most cherished aspirations,” archive stories said.
Our Lady of Mount Carmel School opened its doors later that year in the former Nathan Hale School building on Lewis Avenue, next to the church on Goodwill Avenue.
The city’s Board of Education, which built the school in 1892, sold it to the church as part of its plan to construct a new high school.
Mount Carmel — the last remaining Catholic school in the city — celebrates its 75th anniversary this year.
“It’s an incredible milestone for Our Lady of Mount Carmel,” said Claudia Schmidt, a pre-K teacher at the school.
The school is holding several events for students and families this year to commemorate the milestone, along with a jubilee Mass scheduled for Saturday.
In 2017, the Our Lady of Mount Carmel parish merged with St. Joseph, St. Laurent, St. Mary, and Holy Angels Church to become Our Lady Queen of Angels parish as part of a regional consolidation plan by the Hartford Archdiocese.
“I feel an obligation and a passion to celebrate the milestone that we have right now given the limited number of Catholic schools left in Connecticut,” Principal Christa Chodkowski said. “To reach 75 years is a godsend.”
The school opened as a K through 6 school with registration of about 250 students before expanding to a K through 9 school three years later.
Most of the students in its early years lived in the neighborhood and walked to school. The school was run by nuns, Filippini Sisters, who were overseen by a mother superior, who acted as a principal.
“I loved the school, I really did,” said Marie Cessario, who was part one of the school’s first graduating class in 1953 and now works as a librarian at the school.
“I walked to school with girlfriends and we had, seriously, nothing to worry about. It really was a safe neighborhood,” said Cessario, who lived on Chamberlain Highway.
After Cessario’s father, an Italian immigrant, married her mother, they moved from New Haven to Meriden and sent Cessario to Mount Carmel School in 1945 for first grade.
Because Mount Carmel Church was founded by a group of about 70 Italian-American families, the school was predominantly made up of Italian-American children in its early years.
“Originally, it was an Italian school, but now we have everything you can think of under the sun — all nationalities, all races, all religions,” said Nancy Maier, who began as a teacher at Mount Carmel in 1990 and is now the school’s longest-tenured teacher.‘Very strict,very old-school’
The church was founded by Italian immigrants who wanted to establish a parish and church to fit their specific needs, according to Record-Journal archives. In the mid-19th century, Meriden became a refuge for hundreds of Italian-speaking people, who settled primarily in the northwestern section of the city, adjacent to the downtown area.
As the number of Italian families increased, sentiment grew for the establishment of a church to fit their specific needs.
Up until that point, people of Italian birth and descent had worshipped in St. Rose and St. Laurent churches.
In 1892, the Rev. Angelo Chiriglione, a Scalabrinian missionary, began to make occasional visits to Meriden, followed by the Rev. Felice Morelli of New York. Morelli began to organize the Italian population into a “parish family” of about 70 families.
The original Mount Carmel church opened in 1894, but was later torn down in the 1930s and replaced with the church’s yellow-brick building at 109 Goodwill Ave.
By the 1930s, the church needed a larger space because it had grown tenfold, to about 700 families, as more Italian immigrants arrived following the end of World War I.
Lyddy made good on his promise to open a school just months after his announcement in 1944, despite the extensive repairs and remodeling needed at the former Nathan Hale School building.
During a ceremony celebrating the school’s opening on Sept. 11, 1944, the most Rev. Maurice F. McAuliffe, bishop of the Hartford Roman Catholic diocese, visited to bless the school.
The school has changed in many ways over the years, but its mission and roots of educating students has remained, Maier said.
She recalls the school, run by nuns at the time, having a much stricter dress code.
“It was a lot different. (Teachers) all had to wear skirts — very strict, very old-school — but it was a great school. After I taught here a year I sent my kids ... I was sold after a couple of months,” said Maier.Surviving in new era
The school is no longer run by nuns. Maier said traditional teachers often have children of their own and better understand children’s needs.
Chodkowski is only the third layperson to serve as principal.
“It’s really changed a lot, but the roots are the still the same, and kids don’t really change,” Maier said.
“It’s like a family, it’s a continuation of the home, really,” Maier said. “When they leave here, they have a really solid education.”
The school today has an enrollment of 210 students in grades pre-K through 8.
Enrollment has grown in past years, at least in part due to students transferring following the closings of St. Stanislaus School in 2015 and St. Joseph School in 2017.
Cessario credits the school’s principals and priests over the years for keeping it in operation.
“If it wasn’t for them, the school wouldn’t have survived,” Cessario said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Mount Carmel was the last Roman Catholic parish in Meriden to open a parochial school when it opened Mount Carmel School in 1944. The parish was the last to open a school at the time.