2018 People of the Year: The students of Mercy High School

The students of Bishop McGann-Mercy High School were thrown for a loop and heartbroken when they learned in March that their school would cease to exist after the academic year was finished. 

The Class of 2018 suddenly became Mercy’s last graduating class, leaving alumni with no place to see former teachers and no way to visit the hallways that once seemed so small to them.

Younger students had to find new schools for their last years before college. Some had to transfer to local public schools, and transition from 500 fellow students to school buildings with 2,000 kids. Others trekked an hour or more to the nearest Catholic school, St. John the Baptist Diocesan High School in West Islip. 

For their resilience and strength as a community in moving on after a shocking hardship, Mercy students have been named the Riverhead News-Review’s 2018 People of the Year.

“I didn’t think it was true. I didn’t think it was really happening,” former Mercy student Chris Atkinson said in an interview in November. “I remember waking up the next day and I was like, ‘Wow, this is actually happening.’ ”

During Mercy’s final graduation ceremony June 6, the auditorium was filled with tears of both sadness and joy. Although students were celebrating the achievement of completing high school, the event also marked the end of an era as the final group of graduates crossed the stage to receive diplomas from the East End’s only Catholic high school.

The Diocese of Rockville Centre had announced the school’s demise just three months earlier via a YouTube video, citing declining enrollment and demographic changes as reasons for the decision. The diocese said combined enrollment at the high school, Our Lady of Mercy elementary school in Cutchogue and St. Isidore elementary in Riverhead had dropped 37 percent since 2011, and it saw no signs that enrollment would rebound in the near future.

“Unfortunately this graduation is not just about the Class of 2018. It is for everyone who is losing their home base,” Olivia Valle, Mercy’s last valedictorian, said in her commencement speech. “It is not just a goodbye for seniors. It is a goodbye for everyone who has ever bled green and gold. We are the underdogs, but we know how to win. Even if there’s no building to drive past, or football game to go watch, we will turn to each other and we will always be able to feel the presence of Mercy.”

Despite the sadness, the Monarchs softball team went out as champions by bringing home the county title just a few weeks before the school shut down for good.

“It’s surreal,” coach Rose Horton told the News-Review after the game in May. “This whole entire season has been kind of surreal.” 

Paul Schmidt of Wading River was a junior when Mercy’s fate was announced. He was forced to choose between traveling nearly an hour to St. John’s or St. Anthony’s in Huntington or attending Riverhead High School. He chose the latter.

“My best friend went to St. John the Baptist in West Islip, so it was tough not going to school with him because we’ve been going to school since kindergarten,” Paul said during a phone interview in November.

Karina Ellis of Jamesport, also a junior, chose to transfer to St. John’s to continue her Catholic education for her final year of high school. She now wakes up at 5:30 a.m. each weekday and drives to Riverhead, where the bus picks her up at 6:10 a.m. for the trip to West Islip.

Although the suddenness of the decision to close Bishop McGann-Mercy High School shocked and worried students at first, they focused on enjoying their last few months at their beloved school before being forced to move on.

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Photo caption: The Class of 2018 hug at Mercy’s final graduation ceremony in June. (File photo)

Previous Winners

2017: Byron Perez
2016: Tijuana Fulford
2015: Steve Beal, Kevin Burgess, Anthony Chiaramonte and J.R. Renten
2014: The Shoreham-Wading River football team
2013: Michael Hubbard
2012: Denise Lucas
2011: Laurie Nigro, Amy Davidson
2010: Linda Hobson
2009: Chris Kempner
2008: Riverhead Blue Waves
2007: Maureen’s Haven
2006: Sister Margaret Smyth
2005: Alan Shields
2004: Phil Cardinale
2003: Vince Tria
2002: Bryan Tressler
2001: Annie Jackson
2000: Judy Young
1999: Members of the First Congregational Church
1998: Eileen Miller
1997: Vinny Villella
1996: Vic Prusinowski
1995: Pat Stark
1994: Sonny Okula, Jim Kane
1993: Jack Van de Wetering
1992: Bobby Goodale
1991: Joe Janoski
1990: Robert Tooker
1989: Jim & Connie Lull
1988: Jesse Goodale