A Patron Saint of Libraries Brings Books to St. Brigid School

Verne Oliver and studentRachel Ohm Verne Oliver talks to a student in the new St. Brigid School library.

For years, St. Brigid School on Seventh Street and Avenue B didn’t have a library. Books were spread out across classrooms and strewn on shelves in the faculty room. Then Verne Oliver came to visit. With the help of the Gilder Foundation, a private philanthropy, the former teacher has spent her retirement remodeling and building libraries at Catholic schools across the city. She has completed over 100 – her latest, at St. Brigid, will host its first class on Monday.

“What is a library?” asked Mrs. Oliver, 89, as she sat with students of all grades in the cheery green and yellow room. “An organized place where every book has an address.”

St. Brigid, which is affiliated with the church of the same name next door, has been an East Village fixture for over a century. All of its students – 91 percent of which are minorities – receive free, federally funded breakfast and lunch. In 2001, the church was deemed structurally unsound, and would have been demolished by the city if not for an anonymous donation of $20 million.

Mrs. Oliver only works in parochial schools such as St. Brigid, though she isn’t Catholic herself. “The children are very attentive,” she said. “In this country we need more focus on religion and how people are treated.”

She grew up in Elizabeth, New Jersey, where she walked twenty blocks to the library on Saturdays. (These days she reads books on her Kindle.) In 1943, she graduated from Mount Claire University after three years – “exactly the years of World War II,” she said. “We were told our curriculum would be accelerated so we could graduate faster. They needed girls to be teachers.”

Mrs. Oliver went on to get a master’s degree from Howard University in Washington, D.C. and worked for years as a history professor. In 1957, she moved to New York with her husband, eventually becoming head of the New Lincoln School, a private school affiliated with Columbia University. She still receives e-mails from her former students – like the boy who now advises President Obama on nuclear proliferation.

After thirty years there, she retired, planning to spend time reading Russian novels, a genre she had yet to explore. But then Joan McMenamin, a fellow school head at the prestigious Nightingale-Bamford school, introduced her to one of the school’s supporters, the philanthropist Richard Gilder. He sent her on a visit to the Annunciation School in Crestwood, where she was struck by the outdated library.

“I didn’t like that it was disorganized,” she said. “I worked there all summer and then people saw my work, and schools started asking me to do their libraries.”

“She has the creativity to fix a room,” said Donna Vincent, 64, the principal of St. Brigid. “She sees space and knows exactly how it will go and how many books will fit.”

On her first visit to the library in action, Mrs. Oliver admired a new poster that said “Read” in different languages. She is hoping to get the school a copy of the biography of St. Brigid as well as some magazine subscriptions. She said she is never disheartened that many Catholic schools are in danger of closing due to either lack of funding or declining student populations. Many of the schools she has worked in have closed, including Our Lady of Sorrows on the Lower East Side. That school folded last year; but with the help of Mrs. Oliver, its books – nearly 4,000 of them – have been saved. Today they fill the shelves of the St. Brigid School library.