By Mark Benton
In June 2014, the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo closed 10 parochial schools due to either declining enrollment, financial distress or both. St. Joseph School in Gowanda was one of them. Ninety years of Catholic education that took place in one school building at 71 East Main St. became a footnote.
At about the same time that four eighth-graders received their diocesan diplomas in the school’s last graduation ceremony, I had just completed writing my second book. That nonfiction best-seller in Gowanda researched the history of football in our community. And sure enough, at the reception that followed the graduation ceremony, I was asked what I planned to write about next. It was a no-brainer.
I had the idea of researching and writing a book about the history of St. Joseph School several years before the final ax fell. After all, my mother and eight of the nine children in our family had attended the school. Their recollections alone dating back to the early 1930s would be a good starting point. Plus, the many alumni scattered throughout the country were just an email away for recounting their best SJS story.
So I began by first interviewing my mother, a 1938 graduate of the school. Then I reached out to former students, teachers and principals. Their stories were unique, to say the least. And the formal writing of the book began.
SJS, like so many institutions during the baby boom era, saw a dramatic spike in enrollment. Classes that had counted 10 to 12 students were twice that size by 1960. And during the decade of the turbulent ’60s, that one school building welcomed more than 330 students. Class rosters of 40-plus children became the norm.
But things began to change in the ’70s in small-town, rural parochial schools like SJS in Gowanda. Families that once had eight, nine or 10 children attending the Catholic school were reduced to about half that size. Lay teachers were replacing the nuns who had made up the majority of the school’s faculty staff. And, of course, the New York State mandates for all public or private school curriculums were becoming more numerous.
With shrinking class sizes, having to finance a full staff of lay teachers rather than nuns (who had taken a vow of poverty) and updating the classrooms to keep up with the technological advances, parochial schools such as St. Joseph had only one option: charge tuition to their students.
As the years went by, the tuition costs and annual fundraisers needed to keep the school afloat financially increased dramatically.
Although the number of students continued to decrease, the attitude among those who remained was upbeat. Everyone – the principal, teachers, parents and students – worked together. As enrollment dropped to well below 100 students, SJS invented new ways to provide the same opportunities that were offered in the public schools.
But in the end, with fewer families able to afford tuition, the ongoing sacrifices that everyone was making and the parish subsidizing the school in the neighborhood of a quarter-million dollars each year, the burden became too heavy and the school closed.
On March 25, at the Gowanda American Legion, “God Bless SJS: The History of St. Joseph School” will be unveiled. A large group of alumni will be coming back home from as far away as Oregon and California to share the memories of the parochial institution that stood for 90 years.