The farewell sign outside the Prince of Peace Regional Catholic...

The farewell sign outside the Prince of Peace Regional Catholic School in Sayville. Prince of Peace is one of the schools that the diocese has decided to close. (June 20, 2012) Credit: Newsday/Jacqueline Connor

'Farewell Prince of Peace, Hello . . ."

So read a sign in front of the now-shuttered Prince of Peace Regional Catholic School in Sayville Wednesday.

"Hello . . ."

The ellipsis is apt because it offers a hint that generations of children who studied, played and prayed -- unlike most American children today -- will keep the best of what the dwindling number of Catholic schools have to offer.

Wednesday, parent after parent recalled the closing of their own Catholic grade school or high school over the years. Yet, they consider a Catholic education important enough to pass along to their children.

"Catholic school is about close-knit family, faith and friendship," said Richard Brooks, 43, of East Patchogue, who went to Catholic grade school -- the now-shuttered St. Kilian in Farmingdale -- and a public high school.

"There are wonderful people in public schools, but there's something special about Catholic school, from the teachers to the expressions of faith," he said. "I still have close friends from grade school and I wanted my children to have the same experience that I did, that my mom and my dad did."

He and other parents also cited the sense of community, rigorous academics and, especially as enrollment has declined over the past several decades, small classes.

But there are loftier benefits, too. Catholic schools, as they have for generations, place a mirror in front of each child, each school day.

They demand -- as they did in the days I wore a grade school and high school uniform -- that students assume responsibility for their work, behavior and faith from Day One. And that children consider -- and when necessary, accept -- the consequences of their actions.

Those lessons, even as the church poorly handled a series of scandals, do not wear away.

"It gave me the foundation to deal with some of those tough things that come with life, to deal with a lot of situations," said Stefanie Belluardo, 44, of Holtsville, whose Catholic high school, Maria Regina in Uniondale, also is now shuttered.

Some of the other Catholic school graduates I talked to Wednesday were critical of the diocese for closing so many schools.

Others said they weren't happy, but understood because school enrollment -- there were 14 in the Prince of Peace graduating class -- is shrinking.

Still, many are determined that their children continue the Catholic school tradition.

Next year, Brook's daughter, Ava, will be out at 6:45 a.m. -- instead of 7:15 -- to board a bus to her new school, St. Patrick in Bay Shore. Belluardo's daughter, Genna, will be going there, too.

Other parents said their children would be off to St. Joseph in Ronkonkoma, Our Lady of Good Success Academy -- a Catholic charter school in Farmingville -- and others.

The school day ended with Principal Jane Harrigan, old-style brass bell in hand, presiding over an orderly dismissal in the auditorium -- even as some parents and teachers continued to hug and wipe away tears.

On one wall was a sign congratulating the Class of 2012, the school's final graduating class. And on tables, parents had their pick of hundreds of snapshots of Prince of Peace students -- in the classroom, on the playground, with their teachers.

In almost every photograph, the children are smiling.

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