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Dominican Sisters selling former Queens high school

Dominican Commercial High School in Jamaica, Queens, which

Dominican Commercial High School in Jamaica, Queens, which the Dominican Sisters of Amityville are selling, is shown Friday, Sept. 29, 2017. Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

For years, Dominican Commercial High School in Queens was so well known that its graduates — dubbed “DC girls” — were practically guaranteed jobs as secretaries at major companies and law firms in Manhattan.

“Some of them would say, ‘You didn’t even have to come in for an interview. You’ve got the job,’ ” recalled Sister Fran Gorman, who attended and later helped run the all-girls Catholic school in Jamaica that got its start in 1936.

Now, nearly two decades since the school closed in 1998, the Dominican Sisters of Amityville are preparing to say a final goodbye to one of the treasures of their order.

The extensive complex — the former school building, two convents and a parking lot across the street — is for sale.

While there is no listing price, it is one of the largest and most valuable pieces of property the nuns have put on the market. The only one to compare so far was the sale of their 7-acre retreat center in Water Mill in 2005, which netted $35 million.

“It’s a very difficult decision to come to, because it’s been in existence for 63 years. And so it pulls at the heartstrings of a lot of sisters and lay people who taught there,” said Sister Mary Pat Neylon, who is prioress, or head, of the order. But the “signs of the times” necessitate the sale.

The order’s numbers are continuing to decline. From a peak of about 1,300 in the 1970s, the number of sisters now is about 400, Neylon said. The median age is 80.

The sale will help pay the escalating health-care costs of the sisters in their final years, Neylon said, and also allow still-active sisters to continue working in their ministries.

The 88,000-square-foot property is on 89th Avenue near 161st Street, between busy Hillside and Jamaica avenues and north of York College. Thomas R. Zimmer III, the real estate agent handling the sale, said a purchaser would be able to add onto the building, with no zoning limits on height.

The Dominican Sisters are not alone among religious orders on Long Island in putting prime property on the market. The Ursuline Sisters are selling their motherhouse in Blue Point for the same reasons. That center — a local landmark near the Great South Bay, surrounded by majestic pine trees — dates to 1935.

For both orders, it is much more than a real estate transaction. It is a wrenching break with their past, and a sign that they must adapt as the orders contemplate their future.

“This holy ground means so much to me,” said Gorman, 71, who has served as a site administrator for the former school during the last several years. Of the decision to sell the property, she said, “It was hard for all of us, but it was very hard for me because my heart was here. But I knew it was necessary.”

The actress Barbara Bach, who played the Russian agent in the James Bond film “The Spy Who Loved Me” and later married former Beatle Ringo Starr, graduated from the school in 1964 in the same class as Gorman.

“I remember her because she was very pretty,” Gorman said. By 1965, Bach was working with the Eileen Ford modeling agency in Manhattan and appearing as a cover girl in major magazines such as Seventeen and Vogue. The Bond film she starred in was released in 1977, with Roger Moore playing Bond.

Alumnae said Dominican Commercial was a gem that left a long-lasting mark on them.

“The school was a remarkable place,” said Mary Makowski, 68, of Northport, who graduated in 1966. “It was a no-nonsense school and run like clockwork. You got more than an education. You got your morals, your leadership qualities.”

“When we were ready to graduate,” she recalled, “we were handed a list of the top companies in New York that took, as they called them, ‘the DC girls.’ I graduated in June and I was working two weeks later. The companies wanted the girls from DC because their training was so good. There was never a thought of, ‘Where am I going to get a job?’ You were instantly hired because you came from DC.”

Like many graduates, she landed at a top Manhattan law firm. Others went to work for major corporations such as Union Carbide or IBM.

Competition for admission was intense, Makowski and others said. You needed good grades in elementary school. Students were required to remain silent in the hallways as they changed classes. They wore brown uniforms and brown Oxford shoes.

“We used to go in in our uniforms for an interview,” Makowski said. “What did we know? With our Oxfords on the train.”

By the 1970s, the school expanded its offerings and created an academic track for girls planning to attend college.

It was during that decade that Dominican Commercial, which had just 67 students and six nuns as teachers when it opened in 1936, hit a peak of 1,600 students. By the time it closed, the school had shrunk to 270 students — the result of changing times and demographics, with fewer girls who wanted to attend a single-sex school and fewer Catholics in the area.

The adjoining convent was built to house 67 nuns and for many years was nearly full. The seven sisters who live there soon will move to other convents.

After the school closed, the sisters started renting out parts of the building to not-for-profit groups, such as a Head Start program and another for disabled adults. But the financial needs of the order became too great, and the decision to sell was made.

Even if the building is torn down — and the sisters said that is possible, though they hope it remains and the not-for-profit organizations can stay — its legacy will live on in the thousands of graduates and scores of sisters and lay people whose lives were shaped there.

“The sisters put their heart and soul into it,” Makowski said, “and it showed by the product that came out of it.”

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