They did not exactly leave their mark under the cover of darkness. It was around dusk Sunday night, when about 10 members of the Holy Angels Academy crew – the last rowers in the school’s history – spray-painted their brand on the breakwater for all to see at Monday’s West Side Rowing Club regatta.
“HAA Forever,” one message read. “Go HAA,” said another. “Thanks for 20 Years” was another message. And the girls even changed “Go West Side” to “Thanks West Side.” They also put up a banner that read, “1994-2013. Holy Angels Crew.”
This was no mischievous prank or cheap piece of graffiti. Instead, the young ladies called it a heartfelt message of love for their school and their small band of rowers.
“We didn’t do it for the fun of it,” explained Erin Gunn, one of the senior captains. “We did it because we hold it in our hearts.”
Holy Angels Academy is closing after this school year, a victim of financial woes and declining enrollment. The seniors are the lucky ones; they get to graduate, while the younger students have had to scramble to find another school.
“For the seniors, it’s like the definition of bittersweet,” said Marissa Mele, the other senior captain. “Even before we knew the school was going to close, our class slogan was ‘Saving the Best for Last.’ We just use that every day, not to be sad over it, but to be excited for the future.”
That was the mood Monday. A touch of sadness over the school’s plight mixed with the excitement of rowing competitively together for the last time at the West Side Rowing Club in Buffalo. There were the usual smiles, hugs and laughs, and probably a few tears, too, as the coming end to the crew season meshed with the last days ever on the Holy Angels Academy calendar.
Sports are all about camaraderie, especially in a precision-heavy sport like crew, where the rowers literally have to pull together. The Holy Angels rowers have developed their own special bond during the on-again, off-again developments of the closing of their school. School officials announced the closing April 30, and after several attempts to save it, the school closing was reaffirmed May 16.
Those two weeks brought the young ladies together, even before their latest bonding experience as they wielded their spray-paint cans Sunday on the Bird Island Pier, the narrow divider between the Niagara River and the calmer Black Rock Channel.
As the school’s Senior Four with coxswain approached the finish line – and the Holy Angels’ spray-painted message board – in Monday’s preliminary heat, junior coxswain Caroline Dirr spotted the slogans and used them to inspire her crew.
“We were like 250 meters away, and I said, ‘I can see the “HAA Forever” on the wall.’ I think that had an impact on the girls.”
The crew finished fourth of six boats in the time-trial heat, qualifying for the finals, where it finished last.
Head coach Kevin Nugent marveled at his rowers’ ability to stay so connected to their sport, their team and their sister- hood during all the anxiety over their school’s fate the last few weeks. That’s why Nugent didn’t object to the spray-painting bonding exercise.
“It’s a testament to their resilience, working together in a wave of uncertainty for them,” Nugent said. “It totally signifies their strength, knowing who they are and where they’re going.”
Several crew members talked about both the small Holy Angels school population, with only 240 students in seven grades, and the relatively small crew, with only about a dozen rowers, compared with 30 or 40 at other schools.
“We’re all a family, as a school and a crew team,” senior Chelsea Fairbanks explained. “We’re all really close. A lot of other schools can’t say that.”
Following Monday’s Fontana All-High City Championships at West Side, Holy Angels rowers talked about their legacy, as a school and as a crew team.
“We want to leave something for people to remember us by,” Mele said of their spray-painted message. “Hopefully, nobody will write over it, and it will last forever.”
And even if those slogans are sandblasted or whitewashed away in the next few days, the young ladies have another message for the public.
As Dirr put it, “We will all be Angels forever.”