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School finds second home after storm damages roof

The St. Paul’s Episcopal School needed a miracle.

Six days after the board of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in College Point voted to shut down its elementary school, mourners gathering at the church for a Saturday morning funeral discovered that the school had been damaged by Friday night’s thunderstorm.

The tempest, which blackened the Queens sky, tore off parts of the school’s roof, scattering shingles across the neighborhood. The high winds and heavy rain flooded the school, which was in no shape to house the 80 students due back on Monday morning.

The school’s eighth-grade graduation, already threatened by financial troubles, was thrust into even more doubt.

“It was quite chaotic,” said the Rev. Paul Hamilton, rector of the church and headmaster of St. Paul’s Episcopal School. “When you’re traumatized, it’s hard to think.”

But out of the blackness came a light of hope.

After Saturday’s funeral service, Hamilton placed a call to the Immanuel Lutheran Church, located about two miles from the College Point Boulevard school on 11th Avenue in Whitestone.

On Sunday morning, the administration of the Immanuel Lutheran Church met and quickly decided to offer their 150th Street school building to St. Paul’s. The Immanuel Lutheran School shut its doors last year because of funding problems.

On Monday morning, the St. Paul’s students walked through the doors of the former Lutheran school. Despite the damage to their school, most of the students did not miss a minute of classes.

“Thank goodness for the Lutheran school,” said Mary Duncan, who teaches science and language arts at St. Paul’s . “It saved us. It really saved us.”

“I feel that it’s a blessing,” said Gwendolin Mercardo, who teaches third and fourth grade at St. Paul’s. “God works in mysterious ways.”

St. Paul’s teachers said the children’s first day at the Whitestone school went smoothly. As they dismissed children, the faculty discussed ironing out logistics, such as where children should be directed to cross the street.

“I’m not happy that I have to drop off my daughter in Whitestone everyday, but I’m very grateful it worked out,” said Mike Shapiro, whose daughter Natasha attends St. Paul’s.

The educational director of Immanuel Lutheran, Richard Liescheidt, was also impressed at the ease of the move.

“If you had try to plan this kind of move or change, it would not have gone over well,” said Liescheidt.

The transfer of the students from St. Paul’s to Immanuel Lutheran was an irony not lost on the administration of either organization. Last June, the Lutheran school closed because of a lack of funds.

“I told to the children it’s as if the school said, ‘I’m very sad because I have no children here,’” said Hamilton.

Liescheidt worked as the head of the Immanuel Lutheran School from 1974 to 1997. The school, which had many as 225 students in the early 1970s, had about 170 students when Liescheidt left to work at a school in Staten Island in 1997.

In 2001, Liescheidt returned to Immanuel Lutheran to work at the church’s Sunday school. The main school, however, had closed, with its population dropping to 40 students.

Four years later, with only 40 students at the school, Immanuel Lutheran closed.

“The enrollment had dwindled to the point that it wasn’t feasible to operate the school,” said Liescheidt.

Liescheidt said many of the families who traditionally sent students to the school left the Whitestone area. He also said the school was not highly advertised in the area.

Despite the success of the move, the future of St. Paul’s remains cloudy. Its financial situation remains bleak, and the school is hoping to survive until graduation on June 14.

St. Paul’s also has suffered from a demographic shift, Hamilton said. The school’s population has dropped from about 110 students to 80 over the last five years, said Harriet Stein, a French teacher at the school.

Nevertheless, some said St. Paul’s had a remarkable ability to survive a crisis.

“We’re troopers here,” said Duncan. “That’s what they say about St. Paul’s people.”

Reach reporter Alexander Dworkowitz by e-mail at or call 229-0300 Ext. 141.

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