Lebene Ashinyo is saying a “proper goodbye” to Aquinas High School in the Bronx, which is shutting its doors after educating young women for 98 years.
Aquinas had its final classes June 2, will hold its final graduation ceremony June 10 and students will take final exams in the days following graduation.
“I'm grateful for the opportunity to attend Aquinas,” Lebene, who will attend the Academy of Mount St. Ursula in the Bronx for her senior year, told CNY.
“Even though it’s closing, there will always be memories. That is most important.”
Lebene is one of 53 students enrolled this year, and one of 16 in her junior class to return to Aquinas for the 2020-2021 school year after an announcement last June that the school was closing.
“I wanted to wear the uniform one more time and experience everything one last time. I didn't want to leave without a proper goodbye,” she said.
“I thought I was going back to Aquinas to finish my high school years (after the pandemic). I didn't expect to see it end. Aquinas had a certain energy that I felt from when I attended the open house. It was like a second home.”
Students have been learning in hybrid and remote fashion due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Luz Perez-Arias, a senior heading to Fordham University in the Bronx, said her confidence level grew by taking on leadership roles with the school’s student council and varsity volleyball team.
“As an incoming freshman, you’re always thinking of your senior year,” said Luz, who is studying remotely. “I wasn’t able to experience my last year of high school with my peers. I wish things were different.
“I’m very grateful I will be able to graduate from Aquinas High School.”
The Dominican Sisters of Sparkill purchased an entire block of property in the Belmont section of the Bronx known as Grote Estate from the Astoria Homestead Company. The property, featuring a Victorian mansion and three-story frame house, was located from East 182nd to East 183rd streets and from Belmont to Cambreleng avenues.
The property served as a school for younger children in St. Martin of Tours parish starting in 1900. When the parish school opened in a new location, the Dominican Sisters of Sparkill opened Aquinas Hall, a two-year business school, to 30 young women in September 1923.
In 1939, the historic mansion was demolished and Aquinas High School was constructed, welcoming 438 students when it opened in September 1939. In the next decade, enrollment increased to 800 students.
Aquinas received state and national honors over the years, becoming the first high school in New York City to be named an exemplary school by the U.S. Department of Education in 1985. First Lady Laura Bush visited Aquinas on Sept. 11, 2002, the first anniversary of 9/11.
“It was a home away from home,” said Sister Catherine Rose Quigley O.P., a 1959 Aquinas graduate who served as school principal, 2000-2018, and assistant principal, 1994-2000.
“It provided an education for women appropriate to a particular time. It was a quality education in the Catholic tradition.”
The Dominican Sisters of Sparkill will continue leasing the property to the Cardinal McCloskey Charter School and Cardinal McCloskey Community Services.
A celebration to mark the 100th anniversary of the opening of Aquinas is planned for 2023.
“There always was so much life in the building,” said Kris Sherwood, a teacher at the school since 1993 who will teach at St. Joseph Hill Academy on Staten Island for the next school year.
“The building is stunningly beautiful, always so clean and bright. There was something about this building. You walked up to it and you were hooked to it.”
Leslie Limardo graduated from Aquinas in 1993 and has been library media supervisor at the school since 2018. She said the school always prepared its students for college and life, and shared what she’ll miss most when the school closes.
“I think it’s the hours of conversations with the students,” she said. “As a librarian you help students with research and anything they need. The girls would come to the library to just talk. They would surround my desk and talk. It was something I would look forward to and missed during the pandemic.”
Mark Shultz became the school’s first lay principal in the 2018-2019 school year, when there were 248 students enrolled in grades nine through 12.
“In my 40-plus years as an educator, I have never been in a more loving, demanding and supportive environment,” Shultz said. “I will miss every student, faculty, staff member, parent and alumni who participated at one time or another in our mission to ‘educate and inspire young women for a lifetime of faith, learning and compassionate action toward a more just world.’”
Students and staff will leave with memories with students looking to follow in the footsteps of graduates such as actress Debbi Morgan and Julissa Reynoso Pantaleón, current chief of staff to First Lady Jill Biden and former U.S. ambassador to Uruguay.
Reynoso Pantaleón, a 1993 graduate, will deliver a virtual commencement address at graduation June 10. Thirty-seven seniors will graduate and nine juniors are graduating after taking classes last summer to meet graduation requirements a year early.
“We need to celebrate these young women,” said Dr. Mary Anne Evangelist, board of directors chair and a 1964 Aquinas graduate. “They’ve been through more challenging times than any of us with the pandemic.”