A Community Cornerstone for Over 100 Years
Corpus Christi School, New York
by Elizabeth Dunn, OP
Corpus Christi School in Manhattan, NY, closed its doors as of June 2020. When the present teaching staff heard that the school was closing, they were deeply saddened as were all who ever walked through its doors. As a present teacher stated, “Corpus Christi School was not a building to us but a life-lasting experience. The lives we touched and the relationships formed will forever be a part of us. When I think about the school, the first thing that comes to mind is a strong beating heart. I have always felt like it emitted a beacon of hope and security—it was a second home.”
Corpus Christi School, located in the Harlem/Morningside Heights area of New York’s Upper West Side, educated Pre-K through 8th-grade students from all over the world for over 100 years. Corpus Christi School and Parish occupied the fringe of Columbia University’s campus, surrounded by Columbia Teacher’s College, Union Theological and Jewish Theological seminaries, Barnard College, and the Julliard School of Music. It was walking distance from the famous Riverside Church and St. John the Divine Cathedral. One could see glimpses of the George Washington Bridge, Grant’s Tomb, and the Hudson River from the rooftop of the school building.
In June 1936, Father George Barry Ford, then pastor of Corpus Christi Parish, asked Mother Samuel Coughlin, OP (1868–1959), if she would be able to send 16 Sisters to staff the new school of Corpus Christi. Fr. Ford was a noteworthy name around Columbia University. (Read more about Fr. Ford in his memoir entitled A Degree of Difference.)
Most memorable and a testimony of the quality of education our Sisters brought to Corpus Christi School was their compassion, professionalism, creativity, and the ability to implement innovative learning. Father Ford requested Sisters who could organize a curriculum requiring techniques new to the world of elementary education, working closely with instructors in the School of Education at Columbia University. The Sisters under the leadership of Vivian Doran, OP (1892–1981, the first principal who received her MA degree from Columbia University), and Joan Smith, OP (1890–1976), provided a laboratory school that was “the talk of the town,” open to visitors that came by the dozens. The first observation of a visitor to Corpus Christi School was the informal atmosphere in the classrooms. Besides following the course of study required by the Archdiocese of New York, Corpus Christi used a three-volume curriculum called Guiding Growth in Christian Social Living (written by Nona McGreal, OP [1914–2013], and Joan Smith). Within this framework, three major goals essential for living in a democracy were stressed: leadership and responsibility; cooperation instead of competition; and originality and creativity. Leadership and responsibility went hand in hand at Corpus Christi. Through the years, the values of this curriculum and the excellent quality of education offered to students from all over the world never deviated from the school’s early vision.
Records from the Archives list the names of 159 Dominican Sisters of Sinsinawa who were missioned at Corpus Christi during the years 1936 to 2003. There was no Sinsinawa Dominican presence from 1996 to 1999. During these years, the Sisters were also joined by outstanding and dedicated lay teachers. One of the many blessings offered by the Dominican community at Corpus Christi was hospitality to others. The Sisters extended invitations to Sisters of many congregations to live with them while studying in New York for advanced degrees. Intercongregational living had its beginnings at Corpus Christi. We also had many memorable times with our Sisters missioned in the East and, of course, many visitors.
Mary Tyler, OP (1942–2006), went back to Corpus Christi to serve as principal from 2000 to 2003. She was the last Dominican Sister of Sinsinawa to serve as principal. Those who knew her often stated she was the heart of Corpus Christi. Mary served at Corpus Christi a total of 21 years (1973–1980, 1983–1991, and 2000–2003).
The following is a quote from Jenny Rodriquez Berrios, a student in the 1980s and a teacher at Corpus Christi from 2000 to 2020. Mary Tyler taught Jenny and hired her as a teacher in 2000. “There are so many things I can say about Corpus Christi. Knowing that the doors are now closed breaks my heart. It is such an emotional time, and I just cannot believe that no one else will be able to experience the things I did. I will carry Corpus Christi it in my heart. Thank you, God, for allowing me to be part of such an amazing place.”
During the years 1973–1978 and 1982–1987, I ministered at Corpus Christi as a teacher and then as principal. All was gift without measure. I am grateful to Mother Samuel Coughlin who was never afraid to “set out for any place where the work was great and difficult” and to all those for over 100 years who inspired others to live and learn with justice, peace, and love.
Let the future say that we sent forth mighty currents of LOVE and HOPE and worked together to heal the world through a special learning environment that entwined the faith and cultures of many to love as one . . . Corpus Christi!