By Christie L. Chicoine
CS&T Staff Writer

St. Joseph School in Collingdale, Delaware County, and Stella Maris School in South Philadelphia will close in June due to declining enrollments and increasing operational costs, the Philadelphia Archdiocese announced late Friday afternoon, April 9.

“It was our hope that through registration and fundraising efforts, Stella Maris and St. Joseph parish schools could remain open, but sadly, the conscientious and diligent efforts of the parish schools’ communities were unable to surmount the trend of declining enrollment,” said Cardinal Justin Rigali.

St. Joseph School needed to register at least 200 students, pre-kindergarten through eighth grade and Stella Maris School needed to register at least 175 students, pre-kindergarten through eighth, grade by March 30 in order to remain open for the 2010-11 academic year.

When the registration period concluded, St. Joseph School had registered 142 students for the next school year, and Stella Maris had registered 69 students.

At St. Joseph School, some of the newly registered classes were as small as six or eight students; only four children were registered for pre-kindergarten. The school is already unable to provide teachers dedicated solely to music, art, computer and physical education programs.

St. Joseph School, founded in 1916, currently has 230 students on its roster, 44 of whom are scheduled to graduate in June.

Five years ago, there were 465 students enrolled at St. Joseph School; 10 years ago, there were 768 students there.

Stella Maris School, founded in 1956, currently has an enrollment of 181 students, 27 of whom are scheduled to graduate in June.

Five years ago, 284 students attended Stella Maris School; 10 years ago, there were 327 students there.

Students from St. Joseph School may attend St. Gabriel School in Norwood, St. Eugene School in Primos or Our Lady of Fatima School in Secane, all in Delaware County.

Students from Stella Maris School may attend St. Monica School or Epiphany of Our Lord School in South Philadelphia.

“Providing our children with the highest quality, faith-filled education remains our priority,” the Cardinal said.

“As we stay steadfast in this commitment, difficult and painful decisions, such as closing St. Joseph and Stella Maris parish schools, must be made to ensure the viability of our parishes and first-rate education of our young people,” he added.

In early March, families of both parish schools received a letter signed by representatives of their respective parishes and schools and by the archdiocesan superintendent of schools detailing what it would take to sustain the schools for the coming year.

In that letter, parents were instructed to remit a deposit of $250 per child by March 30. The deposit was spanided: $50 for re-registration and $200 toward tuition for 2010-11.

Because enrollment requirements were not met, deposits will be refunded within 10 days of the announced closures.

Had St. Joseph School reopened in the fall with 142 students, the deficit for the school operations in just one year, at a minimum, would have been $518,000, adding to the current debt of $800,000.

Had Stella Maris School reopened with 69 students, the deficit for the parish would have exceeded $800,000, forcing it to exhaust all reserve funds and accrue debt.

Father Michael J. Reilly, who has served as parochial administrator of St. Joseph Parish since Feb. 26, acknowledged the closing as a “sad reality” and commended all who “so valiantly” attempted to save the school.

“This gives me great pain, and I know it will cause tremendous sadness for you, the school families, for our dedicated faculty and your precious children,” Father Reilly continued in his letter to school families.

He extended his gratitude to the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary who served the school in the past, as well as to the current principal, Franciscan Sister Gerald Helene, other Sisters of St. Francis and the lay faculty who, collectively, “have made education their ministry and your children their number one priority” throughout the school’s existence.

“Please join with me in prayer for our parish as we work to assist our young people through the rest of the year and find hope in the Risen Lord during this Easter season,” Father Reilly concluded in his letter to school families.

Stella Maris School has been part of a broader study that began last September for parish elementary schools in the Philadelphia-South vicariate’s Clusters 23, 24 and 32.

The study examines how to provide quality, affordable, accessible and sustainable Catholic education to school children.

“This is a painful time for our parish and I recognize there is great upset about what is happening and concern about the future,” Father Peter J. DiMaria, pastor of Stella Maris Parish, said in his letter to school families.

“This was the last thing that I, as pastor, wanted to see happen,” he added. “It was my hope, in fact, that Stella Maris could be considered for a regional school site. …Stella Maris will continue to be part of the planning to ensure quality Catholic education for our parishioners and this region of South Philadelphia.”

Father DiMaria commended the current principal, St. Joseph Sister Lawrence Elizabeth, as well as other Sisters of St. Joseph and the lay faculty for their combined commitment to educating youngsters throughout the school’s history.

Cardinal Rigali extended his gratitude to Fathers Reilly and DiMaria and to the administrators, faculties and communities of both schools as they help the students and their families throughout the transition.

At this time, there are no plans regarding future alternate uses of the school buildings of St. Joseph or Stella Maris.

The Archdiocese’s Office of Catholic Education is assisting administrators, faculty and staff of the closing schools who are seeking employment at other archdiocesan Catholic schools.

For more information, contact the archdiocesan Office of Catholic Education at 215-587-3700.

CS&T Staff Writer Christie L. Chicoine may be reached at 215-587-2468 or