5/20/2011 – Cumberland, MD — This summer marks the end of an era for Catholic education in Cumberland.
After more than a century of living and teaching in Allegany County, the La Salle Christian Brothers Community is leaving. Cumberland has been home to a small core of men who were part of the backbone of local Catholic education. Perhaps you have met them, or perhaps not. But they have been your good neighbors, educating the young men (and since 1966, young women) who enrolled in Cumberland’s Catholic schools

These men have watched a mountain town of the 1910s and 1920s evolve into a significant industrial center of the World War II years and beyond. But when national and international factors — too numerous to mention here — dictated the need to shift from smokestacks to a more diversified economy, Cumberland had no choice but to adjust. Through all of the relatively recent changes, some of them painful, these men remained in their school, teaching lessons and touching the hearts of so many of Cumberland’s future community leaders.

“It’s sad,” said Sister Phyllis McNally, principal and president of Bishop Walsh School, which the Brothers founded in 1966. Earlier, in 1907, the Brothers founded the La Salle Institute here, which became La Salle High School.

“I’m finding it very hard to even talk about it,” McNally said. “When I think of all the graduates of La Salle who have made such a contribution to our city and our community, it just stirs up such pride.”

De La Salle Christian Brothers, an order of the Catholic Church, take vows of poverty and chastity, live in communal settings and devote themselves to the ministry of teaching. The order has a presence in over 80 countries around the world.

In Cumberland, as many as 13 brothers lived and worked here during the 1960s, when the all-boys La Salle High School became the co-ed Bishop Walsh.

Today just two Brothers remain.

“It’s just been less and less and less through the years,” said Brother Eric Henderson, a chemistry and science teacher at Bishop Walsh who has served 21 years in Cumberland.

The dwindling number is due to a “sharp nationwide decline of young Catholics entering religious life since the 1970s, and the inevitable graying and retirement of the Brothers who remain,” said Brother Joe Grabenstein, a Cumberland native who works as the archivist at La Salle University in Philadelphia.

“Replacements are unavailable,” Grabenstein said. “It is an unfortunate situation repeated in every school conducted by the Brothers, and indeed, by virtually every Catholic school.”

Brother Henderson, 68, and Brother Herman Paul, 88, who retired several years ago but remains a presence at Bishop Walsh, are being reassigned to Pittsburgh and will leave Cumberland sometime in July, they said.

“It’s hard for us to leave because we like it here,” said Henderson, who grew up in Pittsburgh. “It’s a beautiful school and beautiful community to be in.”

Paul, originally from Wheeling, W.Va., has spent 45 years in Cumberland — more than half his life. He and Henderson live in the Brothers’ house behind Bishop Walsh School.

“It was built for 18 people,” Paul said. “It’s too big for just the two of us.”

Paul, who taught physics before becoming head of maintenance at Bishop Walsh, now works as a volunteer at the school.

“I don’t like leaving here, but sooner or later it had to happen,” he said. “I’ll miss a lot of people. It’s not easy.”

McNally, who is retiring as principal this summer but will continue as president of Bishop Walsh, said she “wonders what impact (the Brothers’) loss will have on our community.”

“However, the Catholic identity of Bishop Walsh is still strong and continues in the presence of the dedicated lay teachers and the School Sisters of Notre Dame,” said McNally, who thanked the Brothers for their century of service.

Irene Grabenstein, who served more than 30 years as executive secretary at the former La Salle High School, then at Bishop Walsh, remembers when there were more Brothers teaching at the school than lay teachers. The mother of Brother Joe Grabenstein, she was initiated as an honorary Brother in 1988.

Many La Salle alumni refer to her as “Brother Irene,” she said.

“I’ll be the last link to the Brothers in the Cumberland area,” said Grabenstein, 88. “It’s very sad. I have nothing but happy memories of working full time with the Christian Brothers and being part of their family.”

The Christian Brothers themselves do not desire attention for their role in Cumberland during this time. The thanks which they deserve has already been returned to them a hundredfold. The debt owed to the Brothers — marked “paid in full” — is the realization that so many generations of young people in Mountain Maryland (and neighboring West Virginia) have taken the best of the pedagogy, guidance and role-modeling they received, and have made a difference in the ways they were instructed to live. To teach is to constantly plant seeds which will fully awaken long after the teacher puts down the chalk or closes the book. Fortunately, countless Brothers have seen or have learned about the fruits of their specific labors in Cumberland.

(adapted from a story by Kristin Harty Barkley and Brother Joseph Grabenstein, FSC (Cumberland Times-News)

Reflection from a former La Salle High School graduate