Pictured Above: The former Our Lady of Mercy School and Sacred Heart Parish in Cutchogue
Twelve years ago, the Peconic Community School, driven by a mission to cultivate compassionate and creative learners, opened its doors with nine students in a room at the East End Arts School in Riverhead. The next year, with 27 students, it moved into its current rented space at the Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Aquebogue. The school continued to steadily grow until Covid hit, and then suddenly its phone was ringing off the hook with parents looking for innovative educational solutions for their kids. By the end of the first pandemic year, they had 100 students but still had not found a permanent home.
That’s going to change this year — the school is now in contract to buy the former Our Lady of Mercy School on the Main Road in Cutchogue, along with the former Sacred Heart R.C. Church next door, with the hopes of opening their doors there next September.
The school’s founders, sisters Liz Casey Searl and Kathryn Casey Quigley, gave an overview of their plans to the Cutchogue Civic Association at the Civic Association’s inaugural meeting, before a packed house at the Cutchogue-New Suffolk Library Nov. 28.
“I refer to them as the Casey girls —they were born and raised here,” said Mary Eisenstein, a founder of the Cutchogue Civic Association who has helped to guide an explosion of civic groups on the North Fork in recent years. “When you look at their work as a commitment to a community, it is our absolute pride and joy to have them as our first speakers.”
“We’ve been looking for 12 years for a final home, and this property was too good to resist,” said Ms. Quigley. “We do feel it’s a good hub right here on the North Fork. We entered into conversations last year with the parish. It was a good negotiation and we entered into contract in September. They have been truly wonderful. Our brother was baptized in that church. We were raised in this parish, and it feels really good to us. We feel we’re not only able to reach our full vision, but preserving a piece of property that is integral to the community.”
The sisters said a big part of their mission is to educate civic minded learners, with a sense that they are stewards of their community and the natural world surrounding them. They said they want the renovation to reflect that ethos.
The school plans to keep the existing four buildings on the 10-acre property. They can move into the school next fall with minimal renovations, they said, and plan to restore the church to be used for the school’s music department and performance space for the community. They envision having a community kiln and pottery wheel in a carriage house behind the church, and using the rectory for office space, classrooms and possibly a residence for an employee on the third floor.
At some point, they said, they would like to add a fifth building for a gymnasium and a commercial kitchen.
They’re working with Skolnick Architect and Design Partnership, which designed the renovations of the East Hampton Library, The Church in Sag Harbor and the Longhouse Reserve, on the project, with phase one, the reopening of the school building, to be complete by next fall, and a master plan in the works for the rest of the project.
A large swath of woods behind the school building would be kept in its natural state, with trails for students to engage in outdoor educational projects. The sisters said they are open to the idea of selling the development rights to that portion of the property, to ensure it remains undisturbed.
They will need to go before the Southold Town Zoning Board of Appeals before closing on the property, for a special exception use permit for the school. Schools are allowed in the hamlet residential zoning district in which the property lies, if they get the special permit from the ZBA.
The sisters said it was likely the school didn’t have an existing special exception use permit because it had been on the site prior to that provision being added to the town code.
The school, which serves students from three years old in its early childhood program to eighth graders, has made a mission of seeking economic diversity within its student body, offering scholarships to students whose parents might not be able to afford full tuition.
But what that does mean is that this school, a non-profit 501(c)3, does need to fundraise frequently.
“It’s always been our mission to have the school be available to everyone who wants to come. We have an aggressive tuition remission program,” said Ms. Searl. “We also wish to diversify the school in every other way you can imagine. We’re actively trying to have a school population that reflects the true population. That’s a beautiful thing that’s happening on the North Fork. There’s more and more diversity here.”
With this inaugural meeting, Cutchogue became the final hamlet in Southold Town to have its own civic association.
The group plans to meet next on Thursday, Jan. 19 at 6 p.m. at the Cutchogue-New Suffolk Library, where they will hear a presentation about the new battery energy storage system proposed on Oregon Road (see facing page).
“This is a very important topic for our community,” said Dave Bergen, who is serving as the president of the civic association. “We’ve seen, over the last few years, a lot of changes in Southold Town. We have people that represent us that we voted for, but we also have citizens that want to come out and have input into what goes on in Cutchogue.” —BHY