Catholic campus houses Suffolk’s first Islamic school
By BART JONES firstname.lastname@example.org
In classrooms where Catholic girls once studied the Bible and prayed the Our Father, young Muslims now study the Quran and pray in Arabic.
The girls no longer wear uniforms of skirts and blazers, but traditional Muslim floor-length dresses called jilbabs, with hijabs covering their heads. Boys are neatly attired in light blue dress shirts and navy blue pants.
They are the 265 students of MDQ Academy, Suffolk County’s first and only Islamic school, which for the third year is calling the majestic Academy of St. Joseph its home. The former all-girls Catholic high school in Brentwood closed five years ago because of declining enrollment.The number of students in the Islamic school is growing as it continues the cross-faith coexistence. Their classrooms are on two floors of the structure, part of a complex on the grassy 211-acre property that also includes the headquarters of Long Island’s largest order of nuns.
The arrangement is working out wonderfully, leaders of the groups said.
“It’s been very positive for both of us,” said Sister Helen Kearney, head of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Brentwood. “It’s a very positive message for our world that, in a sense, tends to kind of divide groups.”
The partnership underscores Long Island’s growing ethnic and religious diversity. While Catholics still predominate — two of every three Long Islanders are Catholic — Nassau and Suffolk counties are home to at least 75,000 Muslims, according to Muslim community leaders. Two other full-time Islamic schools are located in Valley Stream and Hempstead, and the Island has about two dozen mosques.
Khurshid Khan, principal of MDQ Academy, said the move to the Brentwood campus has been a blessing for the school, which opened in 2003 with five students and had grown to occupy two houses and a trailer next to Masjid Darul Quran mosque in Bay Shore. It currently has students in preschool through ninth grade, with tuition at $4,500 a year.
“This is a gift to us from heaven,” he said of the building. “For that we thank God almighty.”
Khan said he decided to leave statues of Mary, Joseph and Jesus in some of the school’s hallways as a way to honor its past and expose the students to Catholicism.
“I tell the parents we want them [students] to be raised with broad-mindedness,” he said.
The Islamic school has reached out to the nuns who live and work in the complex — in one instance, students drew get-well cards for a sister who had surgery. In turn, two nuns who live on a floor above the school’s classrooms have, on occasion, baked cookies for the students.
For more than a century, the Academy of St. Joseph was an elite Catholic institution, attracting boarding-school students from as far away as South America, with wealthy families sending their daughters north for a solid Catholic education.
But by 2008, the academy no longer could support itself. The school in the four-story building, crowned with a copper cupola that holds a statue of St. Joseph, was closed. Some separate operations continued in other wings, including a day care program that serves children before and after school and a literacy program for immigrant women.
In 2011, the Sisters of St. Joseph reached an agreement with MDQ Academy, and the school moved in. The academy recently extended its agreement with the order, signing a five-year lease. They declined to disclose the amount of rent.
Khan said the building and the entire Sisters of St. Joseph campus and complex — it includes a magnificent chapel and the nuns’ Mother House adjacent to the school — have helped boost enrollment.
“This is a very nice building, very beautiful, spacious, graceful,” he said. “People come, they see, they are impressed.”
The number of students has grown from 188 in the old location to 265 now. The school has added a grade each year that it has been at St. Joseph and hopes to keep expanding through 12th grade. There is a waiting list to get into some grades.
Most of the students come from the Bay Shore and Brentwood areas, but others travel farther.
Kearney said the sharing of space by the two groups has been largely seamless, in part because they share some of the same values: faith, education, family. The school’s students and 32 staff members, like the nuns, pray regularly each day, she noted.
“This is not about difference. This is about what we share in common,” she said. “It shows a real simple sharing of what is really important in life.”
The transformation of the former Catholic academy into an Islamic school is particularly poignant for Marina Elnakib, who teaches fifth grade.
Elnakib, 26, attended the Academy of St. Joseph for her ninth-grade year because her parents, who are Muslim, wanted her to go to a private school. Today, she teaches her students in the classroom where she herself took Spanish.
“It was so exciting the first year. It was just amazing,” she said, adding that the school is getting increasing attention and visitors. “We are role models to the community. We have to present ourselves well.”
Kearney said the partnership reflects her order’s priorities.
“It is kind of the core value in our congregation — that we are all one,” she said. “Respecting diversity and seeing the oneness in that diversity is what our world really needs now.”
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