Retired St. Mary Gate of Heaven principal inspires generations


| tcullen@queenscourier.com |

THE COURIER/Photo by Terence M. Cullen
THE COURIER/Photo by Terence M. Cullen

After 45 years at St. Mary Gate of Heaven in Ozone Park, princial Patrick Scannell has retired and passed the torch to Raffaelo Corso.

It was a moist Friday, a little after noon, when the kids at St. Mary Gate of Heaven crowded in a circle at the main entrance of the building. They weren’t excited about going outside for recess, nor that the weekend was just hours away.

Instead, Patrick Scannell, former principal, was the center of the circle that the cheering children had formed. These days, an appearance by Scannell at the Ozone Park school is like a cameo appearance of a celebrity on a popular TV show.

When Scannell began there in 1967, George Romney, the former governor of Michigan, was considering a run for the presidency. Around the time Scannell retired at the end of last school year, George’s son, Mitt Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, was closing in on the nomination.

Scannell, the son of Irish immigrants and a product of Astoria, had been a part of the school for 45 years — the first 17 as a teacher, and then 28 as its principal. To remember his years of dedication and service, he is being honored with a mass and brunch this month, and a scholarship to attend the school will be named after him.

It was during that summer 45 years ago when Scannell decided he didn’t want to study becoming a priest anymore. A graduate of St. Bonaventure University, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do — so he applied for a teaching job at a school he’d never heard of before, he said, and didn’t know where it was.

Just around Labor Day, however, he got a call from the Diocese of Brooklyn, asking if he wanted a teaching job at St. Mary Gate of Heaven.

“My plan was to stay for a couple of years and move on,” he said casually. “I really came to love the place.”

His first of many classes was seventh grade, where he taught history, geography and religion among many other subjects. The classroom at that time had a phonograph to play records and a film strip projector. That landscape has since changed, with it, the way students learn.

“[Classroom technology today] allows a teacher to bring the world right into the class,” he said.

Scannell taught at the school until 1984, when he was approached and asked if he would be interested in filling the open principal’s position. Scannell took the job, and oversaw generations of students.

One of his students was Raffaelo Corso, who himself became an educator. In fact, Corso, is in his first year leading the school, and Scannell said he couldn’t be happier that Corso has taken over.

The now-retired principal, who ran his first New York City Marathon in 1996 at 51 years old, and continued to for seven straight years after, said his focus is relaxing from the stress of running a school.

“I have not had the alarm clock on,” he said, smiling with his hands folded. “It’s a little slower and more relaxed.”

Nothing is set in stone yet, but he expressed some plans on travelling to Cork, Ireland, where his mother, one of 12 children, grew up on a farm. One of Scannell’s 30-plus cousins runs the farm to this day.

But everything up to now has been education for him. Scannell believes learning is crucial to any young person’s life, and is honored that a scholarship furthering that idea is being named for him.

It’s his love of teaching — and the St. Mary’s students’ love of learning — that makes the school so special, according to Scannell.

One example of this, he said, was a student who was diagnosed with leukemia in the second grade. The boy went on to get treatment through the fifth grade. Scannell, his voice cracking, said he saw the boy in the school yard one morning — getting sick before heading in for class.

“He didn’t let that stop him from getting an education,” Scannell said. “There’s someone who’s fighting with it, dealing with and carrying on.”

The boy’s classmates — and classmates of other students who had fallen ill over the years — were an inspiration as well, he said.

Passing the cafeteria on his way out of the building that Friday, the scores of children eating their lunches stopped and stood, waving and saying hello to Patrick Scannell.