Featured Story

Mercy through the years — Alums look back on their time at Riverhead’s Catholic high school

In March 1990, Mercy High School principal Sister Elaine Hanson accepted the school’s 1989 state School of Excellence award from Department of Education representative Herbert Stupp in a ceremony at the school.

In 1956 the Superior General of the Sisters of Mercy in Brooklyn sent five nuns to Riverhead with the goal of starting a new Catholic high school.

Mercy High School first opened that year in a temporary space on Roanoke Avenue, which is now the Synergy Center. At one point, as enrollment grew, some classes were held there and others were held at a space within the former St. John the Evangelist School.

By 1959, ground was broken on a new school building — the same one that exists today as Bishop McGann-Mercy Diocesan High School, which was completed by 1962.

But now the number of days remaining for the school is nearing the end, due to a decision made in March by the Diocese of Rockville Centre to close the only East End Catholic high school at the end of this school year.

What was it like in the old days?

In interviews this week some alumni reflected on their time there:

Bob Barauskas — Class of 1963

Mr. Barauskas said his brother Joseph graduated from Mercy in 1960 and was part of the first graduating class there.

Things were different then, Mr. Barauskas said.

“Back then, I think they had one sport, basketball,” he said. “The school was in its infancy.”

He recalled playing football in slacks, a tie and shirt. The teachers were all nuns at the time, and his graduating class had around 40 students.

“At the time, the school was a combination between the room above the auditorium at St. John’s and the convent building on Roanoke Avenue,” which is the red brick building now known as the Synergy Center, he said.

“My freshman year was at the auditorium at St. John’s and my sophomore year was at the brick building.”

He couldn’t recall exactly when they moved into the current building.

“It seems like yesterday, but it was a long time ago,” he said.

Asked what he thought of the education he received at Mercy, Mr. Barauskas said, “I wish I had paid more attention …You can think of Mercy and it’s a fleeting thought, but then you really start thinking about it and thinking about the people, and the people that have passed on. Life gets so busy.”

Mr. Barauskas said he’s never been in the building since he graduated and he’s never kept in touch with most of his classmates.

He said he’s just too busy between work and other interests.

Mr. Barauskas is the president of the board of trustees for the Suffolk County Historical Society, a former member of the Riverhead Business Improvement District and president of the Peconic Bay Region of the Antique Automobile Club of America, as well as general manager at Speonk Lumber.

Marion Dorman — Class of 1965

Ms. Dorman was known as Marion Miloski when she attended Mercy, but that’s not her only connection to the school. Her late husband, Michael Dorman, was the first non-nun to teach at Mercy, beginning in the fall of 1965. He continued teaching at Mercy for 45 years, finally retiring in 2010. He died last August following a bout with cancer.

“We were the first freshman class in the new building in 1961,” she said.

They occupied the top floor of the building while the work was being completed on the lower levels, she said.

She recalled a speech she gave at a recent gala honoring her husband, in which she pointed out that she graduated in the spring of 1965 while her husband started in the fall of the same year.

“I said, ‘We’ve got to make sure things are on the up and up here,’ ” she recalled joking.

She actually didn’t meet her husband until 1973; they were married in 1974.

At the time she was working as a teacher at St. John’s and was talked into joining the parish council, where the pastor asked her and a friend to set up a young adults club. It was there she met Mr. Dorman.

“Everyone knew who the eligible bachelor was in town,” she said.

Ms. Dorman taught for 40 years — 13 at St. John’s and 27 at Riley Avenue Elementary School, where she was known for her popular Chinese New Year celebrations. She retired in 2011.

Ms. Dorman said the nuns at Mercy initially were not used to having a male teacher around when her husband started. In fact, since Mr. Dorman looked very young at the time, the nuns often mistook him for a student and would tell him to get back in line with the others when they were walking in the hallways.

Mr. Dorman eventually was asked to be Mercy’s athletic director, even though “he wasn’t a sports guy,” his wife recalled. He held that position for seven years and was able to get Mercy out of the Catholic school league and into the public school league, where the competition was closer to home and better suited to a school of Mercy’s size.

Mercy was “very regimented” when she was there, Ms. Dorman recalled.

“We all had uniforms,” she said. “The girls had to wear green gabardine jumpers that were very heavy, and white blouses and green blazers. And we had to wear beanies. I hated the beanies.”

She said the boys’ uniforms were much less rigid, with a jacket and tie, but nothing specific.

When she heard the school was closing, “I was very sad,” Ms. Dorman said. “It was a real shock because we didn’t expect it. Especially given the fact that the Diocese had taken it over a few years ago.”

She said she was in the school in 2015 for the Class of 1965’s 50th reunion and around 80 people showed up.

Her Mercy education, she said, “gave me my foundation for learning. I guess that’s why I became a teacher.”

She wondered what will happen with all the trophies, banners and yearbooks in the school when it closes. She said she bought a bench with her husband’s name on it “and if the school closes, I’m hoping I get it back.”

A 1990 News-Review clip on Mercy.

Ed Densieski — Class of 1978

A former Riverhead Town councilman who serves on the town’s Planning Board, an owner of an auto repair shop and former race car driver, Mr. Densieski is both a Mercy graduate and a father of three daughters who went there. Two graduated, the third, Jamie, was going to be a senior next fall, had the school not closed.

“I feel bad for her,” Mr. Densieski said.

He said he had fond memories of his own time as a Mercy student as well.

“I believe young people need discipline. I think there’s a lack of discipline in some public school settings,” he said. “Children need to be disciplined and I think Mercy had that. It taught them right from wrong and it taught them respect and manners and things like that. So I think it was a great educational opportunity. I’m sad to see it go.”

But he added, “I’m not happy with the way they did it,” referring to the Diocese’s plan to close the school.

“I really feel that the Catholic Church dropped the ball,” he said. “They could’ve focused on properly bringing up children and giving them a Catholic education rather than some of the other things that they were spending on, such as settling lawsuits, etc. Even if the tuition had to go up a little bit, I understand. But the way they handled it is simply wrong.”

Steve Cheeseman — Class of 1989

Dr. Steve Cheeseman can look at Mercy from a number of perspectives.

He was a student there, he was a parent of two students who went there, he was a teacher there for six years and he was the school’s principal from 2001 to 2010.

He’s now the superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Bridgeport Catholic Schools in Connecticut.

“From a student perspective, I think the sisters and the faculty did an amazing job, not only educating students, but also making them feel valued and challenging them to reach beyond what they thought they could actually accomplish,” he said.

His own kids “loved it” at McGann-Mercy, but didn’t get a chance to graduate from there because they had moved to Connecticut by then, he said.

At the time Mr. Cheeseman took over as principal in 2001, enrollment was very low and the Sisters of Mercy were going to close the school and had asked the Diocese of Rockville Centre to take over, which it did in 2003. From 2001 to 2010, enrollment increased from 300 to around 500.

Dr. Cheeseman’s reaction to the recent news of the school’s closing?

“I was shocked,” he said. “Absolutely shocked, stunned…I can’t think of the right word. And sad. When you think of the amount of work and energy that so many people put into revitalizing the school, and then to see it closing was just shocking.”

He said he still keeps in touch with people from Mercy, although he was unable to attend the final graduation since it coincided with Bridgeport’s graduation.

“I went back to visit Mercy after the announcement, just to see people,” he said. “Hopefully, they’ll be able to do something with the building and reopen something, and I’d love to be involved in that somehow.”

[email protected]

Photo caption: In March 1990, Mercy High School principal Sister Elaine Hanson accepted the school’s 1989 state School of Excellence award from Department of Education representative Herbert Stupp in a ceremony at the school. (Riverhead News Review file photo)