Joy for what the past held and excitement for the future is what most high school seniors feel as they begin their last year and look forward to graduation. This was not to be the experience however for the last graduating class of Cardinal Mindszenty High School of Dunkirk in 1979. Loss of family, a home and tradition is what the close-knit group of students and staff faced. The threat of a closed school and its eventual reality was a cloud that hung over the whole year. The humble beginnings with the Edmundite priests to many glorious years were coming to a close. The fifth in a series of columns devoted to Mindszenty, all have served as a reminder of the past with lessons to be remembered and appreciated.
The first two columns, "Mindszenty the Man, A Portrait of Courage and Faith" and "Mindszenty the Hero" recalled the history, contributions and courage of Cardinal Mindszenty as he fought for religious rights and was imprisoned under the Nazis and Communists in Hungary. The following columns, "Mindszenty the School - Echoes from the Past" and "Mindszenty the School - A Visit Never to be Forgotten," shared how the school was founded and the magnificent day when the Cardinal visited the school in 1974. Sadly, it was only five years later that the school closed its doors. It did not do so, however, without a fight. Various proposals were brought to the table, some of which comprised how private schools are able to operate independently today. In that regard, perhaps the school was ahead of its time.
The school family also held protests with the most poignant directed at the Diocese itself. Bishop Head had come into town in February 1979 at Rusch's Restaurant to kick off the local Catholic Charities Drive. He was met by more than 350 Cardinal Mindszenty supporters with signs such as "Mindszenty will live forever," "Mindszenty, we are what he lived for," "Mindszenty Orphans," "We care, do you?" and "We want a choice."
Despite all of the efforts, in the end, it was too little too late and a decision that was beyond local control at that time. It was painful then and continues to be painful today for those who lived through the experience. Undergraduates had no choice but to transfer to their local public schools. The 62 who were fortunate to graduate came from several local parishes including St. Hyacinth, St. Hedwig, Holy Trinity, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, St. Anthony, St. Joseph (Fredonia and Gowanda), Mt. Carmel, St. John Bosco and St. Joan of Arc.
The last school letter of June 1979 had a touching letter from Principal Rev. Donald Fafinski, Class of '58. In part, he wrote,
"As graduation day approaches, it becomes increasingly more difficult to face the reality of the closing of Cardinal Mindszenty High School. We have fought a good fight and have run a good race and we can be proud of all that has been accomplished at our school in the past 29 years. The spirit of Cardinal Mindszenty and the motto of our school 'Courage - Faith - Loyalty' will live on forever through the thousands of alumni, parents, faculty members and friends that have been part of the Mindszenty Family. The building might be closed, but the spirit of the school will live on in each and every one that has been part of its history. At a time like this, it would be easy to be angry with those who have closed the school, those who never supported the school or only gave token support or those who see little or no measurable value in Catholic Secondary Education; but these must live with their decisions and consciences and alone answer to God for their actions. It is to the others, our supporters, those who sacrificed through the years, to whom I'd like to say a final thank you and God Bless You. We have finished our task of Catholic Secondary Education at the only Catholic High School in Chautauqua County and now pass the torch on to others to 'teach as Jesus did.' May they be blessed in so tremendous a task."
The Cardinal Mindszenty Association was organized on May 24 of that year with several goals, one of which was to preserve the history of the school with a steering committee of David Mancuso, Mrs. Jack Reilly, Joe Zanghi, Mrs. Dan Gernatt, Dick Pincoski, and Fr. Don Fafinski. Graduation was held on June 23 with an Association Dance on June 29, the last activity in the school's gym. Solemn events they were, which can only be understood by those who were there or who know what it is to attend such a school.
Did the school have to close? It is interesting to note that the school's enrollment numbers at the time were not that low, especially when compared to the small numbers in many of the county's public schools today. Financial woes are certainly nothing new, even the public schools experience that. Was it lack of commitment from beyond the walls of the school? Everyone has opinions, but most agree that it was a school that never should have closed and as can be seen today with those schools that thrive in other areas, it was a school that would be sought after today to offer an environment of academic rigor with unashamed religious values.
It is a school that should have stayed open for the honor of its namesake, Cardinal Mindszenty of Hungary. A recent conversation with Bob Muscato, one of its graduates and faculty members, summed it up well when he shared how the Cardinal's visit in 1974 was inspirational to him and all the people who were there that day. Muscato noted that Mindszenty was a man of great courage who inspired him to teach and carry on for the rest of the years at the school and beyond.
Consider honoring Mindszenty by contributing to a scholarship fund for Saint Francis High School. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. Additionally, check out the website mindszentymonarchmemories.yearbookhigh.com for a directory of graduates and many school highlights.
Make it a good week, Mary and Rosamond