Some Catholic school parents felt blindsided. Others found their faith tested. Some were already scrambling to find new schools.
Parents on Wednesday found themselves consoling children and fighting back their own tears as news of 10 Catholic school closures arrived in sealed envelopes and by email.
“It’s heartbreaking to hear your daughter on the phone with her friend, and they’re crying because their school is closing,” said Julie Blanchard, president of the home school association at St. Francis of Assisi School in the City of Tonawanda. “It’s a school, but it’s a family, too.”
With 152 students, St. Francis of Assisi is the biggest school on the closing list. But even at smaller schools, where enrollment numbers made closure seem likely, some had clung to hope their schools would be spared.
“Utter surprise,” said Carolyn Kraus, principal of St. Leo the Great School in Amherst.
She said her school has 109 students between kindergarten and eighth grade.
“You wonder, back and forth,” Kraus said. “You go one way then you go the other way and you hope for the best. Then, when the decision finally comes, you’re saddened and surprised.”
Parishioners at Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary School in Elma had made the case to stay open with diocesan leaders in December. But when Sister Carol Cimino, superintendent of Catholic schools, arrived at the school Wednesday morning, they knew the decision had not gone their way.
“We have to be honest about our anger and our hurt and our disappointment,” said Rev. Gene Ulrich, pastor of Annunciation. “It was what we’ve put into this school historically over a long period of time, that we have the financial means, the passion, the energy, the ability, the assets, the building to make it happen here.”
The 102 students at Annunciation spent the afternoon together in an assembly, listening to music and watching a magician as school officials passed the sad news of the school’s closing to teachers. Then, as happened at all 10 schools slated to close, the job of telling the students was left to the parents.
“We asked the principals to hold anything going on until the end of the school day so that, when parents picked their children up, they could tell them the news,” Cimino said. “As you can imagine, it was a lot of emotion in those parking lots.”
At Our Lady of the Sacred Heart on Abbott Road in Orchard Park, a noticeable pall fell over the basketball court Wednesday afternoon.
There was concern Sacred Heart might be on the list of closures, but seeing the school’s name on the paper just exacerbated the grief.
“It was hard to take,” said Colleen Drajem, a 1982 alumna of Sacred Heart whose name is on the school’s wall of fame for basketball.
Drajem – wife of the school’s assistant basketball coach and 1972 alumna Leonard Drajem – began tearing up talking about the impending closure.
Sacred Heart’s a school that – for the West Seneca Drajems – transcends generations.
Seventh-grade teacher Maureen McCarthy once taught Colleen Drajem and now teaches her son, Joseph – a basketball and baseball player for Sacred Heart. Drajem hoped her fifth-grade daughter, Katie, might also continue her studies there.
“It was just a phenomenal school,” Colleen Drajem said. “It’s a huge family.”
Rick Schmidt, father of seventh-grader Hunter, also a Sacred Heart basketball player, was disappointed by the diocese’s decision to close the school. But he said it wasn’t a major surprise when word arrived in his email.
“You hope against hope and pray it isn’t going to happen,” Schmidt said.
Many parents were still trying to absorb the news.
Kathleen Mayer, a past president of the St. Leo’s Home School Association, teared up as she recalled the education her four sons – including Michael, a seventh-grader, and Nicholas, a fifth-grader – received from St. Leo’s teachers.
“Because it was a small school, everybody was a family,” she said. “If your child was sick, the kindergarten teacher would ask how they were feeling, or the eighth-grade teacher, or the music teacher. Everybody knew everybody, and it was comforting to send them there every day knowing they were safe and secure.”
Several parents said they believed St. Leo’s baseball diamond and soccer field, and other amenities such as its gymnasium and cafeteria, were advantages that might help protect it from closure. Parents said they believed St. Leo might merge with nearby Catholic elementary schools Christ the King and St. Benedict.
“We were led to believe that we had the biggest chance – that the other schools might close and we would be the one to take over,” said Pete Gozelski, whose son Luke attends seventh grade. “I was under that assumption.”
Some parents and parishioners were already looking toward the months ahead. Parents received letters with suggested schools on Wednesday. But they will not be able to transfer their students until next school year begins. Schools will follow their own policies for administering waiting lists for open spaces.
“It’s tough,” said Schmidt, the Sacred Heart parent, explaining the shift in schools might also lead to the family’s re-registration at another parish. “You’ve got to go and support the school where your kids are.”
Coach Drajem, who started as a student at Sacred Heart in 1965 and whose family has been affiliated with the parish since 1958, said he didn’t play up the “win one for Sacred Heart” angle Wednesday because some of his players may have only learned about the school’s closing from fellow teammates in the locker room before the game.
Drajem believed, however, the “honor” of wearing the uniform would prove to be a motivational tool for the rest of the team’s season.
Added Drajem: “God will get us through it.”
News Staff Reporters T.J. Pignataro and Joseph Popiolkowski contributed to this report. email: firstname.lastname@example.org