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La Salle leaving Cumberland after a century of service

CUMBERLAND — This summer will mark 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.

“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.”

A monastic order whose members take vows of poverty and chastity, the brothers live in communal settings and devote themselves to the ministry of teaching. The order has a presence in 84 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 archivist at La Salle University in Philadelphia.

Recently, two brothers serving the Cumberland community have died — Brother Peter Hughes in 2009 and Brother James Kirkpatrick in 2010.

“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 in the land.”

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.”