By Lou Baldwin

Special to the CS&T

The Office for Catholic Education announced on Feb. 28 four parochial schools in Philadelphia and three in Bucks County will close at the end of the current school year due to low enrollment.

The city schools that will close are Ascension of Our Lord, Kensington; St. Anne, Kensington; St. Cyprian in the Cobbs Creek section of West Philadelphia and St. Hugh of Cluny in the Fairhill section of North Philadelphia.

The Bucks County schools are Our Lady of Fatima, Bensalem; St. Martin of Tours, New Hope and St. Thomas Aquinas, Croydon.

Announcements of the closings were made at all weekend Masses Feb. 26-27. On Friday, Feb. 25, teachers and staff were notified and a letter was mailed to parents and guardians of the students. {{more}}

“It’s always a heartbreaking and difficult decision to close a school, especially when so many have given their time and talents to try and sustain it,” said Mary Rochford, archdiocesan Superintendent of Schools.

“The reality is that these parishes can no longer sustain their schools with so few students. We would rather provide affordable options to those families interested in Catholic education than levy a high tuition upon families simply to buoy a school with either sharply declining enrollments or the inability of the parish to meet the class size expectations as outlined in the Standards for Quality Catholic Schools.”

Ascension of Our Lord School projected only 118 children to enroll next school year, according to the Office for Catholic Education. Those students are invited to enroll at Our Lady of Port Richmond School, the regional Catholic grade school in nearby Port Richmond.

“We are deeply grateful to the Archdiocese for its generous support of our humble parish and school,” said Father Michael Chapman, Ascension’s pastor. “Unfortunately declining enrollment and increasing tuition have necessitated the decision to close our school. We appreciate the work done by our principal, our faculty and staff, and especially the Sisters of St. Joseph who have served the parish for over 100 years.”

“Ascension of Our Lord has a strong and proud past,” said the principal, Terry Richardson. “I will miss this close-knit parish, the dedicated faculty and staff and supportive families. Most of all I will miss the children who always made me smile.”

At Our Lady of Fatima, which had a projected enrollment of 132 students for next year, the children may attend St. Charles Borromeo School, also in Bensalem.

“We did all we could do to keep it open,” said the pastor, Father John F. Meyers. “We put together a five-year marketing plan, pulled out all the stops. Most of our students are the children of immigrants who can’t afford the tuition.”

Also, Father Meyers noted, the school was rumored to close for several years and that inhibited signing up new students. “It became a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he said.

St. Anne Parish, which had projected enrollment of 151, also invited children of the parish to attend Our Lady of Port Richmond next year.

“It was a difficult process and a sad decision to have to make, but our numbers no longer allow us to offer the kind of quality education we should be giving,” said Father Joseph D. Brandt, St. Anne’s pastor. He especially acknowledges the hard work of the alumni who tried to keep the school open. While he knows many of them disagree with the closing, he believes their opinion should be heard.

Bill Stahl, the vice president for the alumni, said, “We have been working to rebuild the school. There is no debt, we did fundraising and we don’t understand why it is closing. Why are we turning our backs on young Catholics?”

At St. Cyprian, which had a projected enrollment of 115, students are invited to attend St. Francis de Sales, Mary Mother of Peace or Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament schools.

“It’s a sad time for everybody when we lose the wonderful resource of a Catholic education,” said St. Cyprian’s pastor, Msgr. Federico A. Britto. “Because of circumstances – the low enrollment – we had no alternative and the decision was made. We don’t want this, but we can’t help it.”

Nafessa Collins, who has two children, Billie and Isaiah, at St. Cyprian, thinks it was the economy that forced so many students out. She mourns the fact it won’t be there when the economy turns around.

“It’s devastating. It is really a good school. It is like a big family,” she said.

St. Hugh of Cluny projected next year’s enrollment to be 99 students, and they are invited to attend St. Veronica School, also nearby in North Philadelphia.

At St. Martin of Tours, which had a projected enrollment of 126, the students are invited to attend Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Doylestown or St. Andrew in Newtown.

“It’s a sad time for the parish as well as the school,” said Father W. Frederick Kindon, St. Martin’s pastor. “We are working with the parents to make the transition as smooth as possible.”

St. Martin School is just 10 years old, but it never achieved enrollment expectations. “It’s demographics. We worked hard especially this past year to market the school, but there are not enough children here,” the pastor said.

Jane Fetter, director of development for St. Martin, agrees. “We were trying to build up the school but there is a low birthrate and low population density in New Hope,” she said. “We were never able to build the enrollment to the point where it was academically or financially feasible.”

Students at St. Thomas Aquinas, with a projected enrollment of 116, are invited to enroll their children at Holy Family Regional School, Levittown; St. Charles Borromeo, Bensalem; St. Mark, Bristol or St. Michael the Archangel, Levittown.

“It’s not a huge surprise, it was somewhat anticipated,” said St. Thomas’ pastor, Father Michael Davis. “I commend the school families for going through the process. They have been very supportive.

“Closing the school is good stewardship for the welfare of the parish and for parents it will make life easier in terms of more affordable education,” he said.

“I think this is a very sad time for the kids and the faculty,” said St. Thomas principal Colleen Noone. “The kids are very gifted in many ways and share that giftedness. The school will be missed by all of us.”