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Villa Maria Academy to close in June

Villa Maria Academy, a private Catholic high school for girls established in 1918, will close in June.

The Felician Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Province announced Friday that they don't have enough enrollment to keep the school at 600 Doat St. in Cheektowaga going.

Enrollment had been declining for years. There are 130 students this year, down from 225 a decade ago and as many as 640 in the mid-1970s.

The Felician Sisters said they can no longer afford to subsidize the school.

"Unfortunately, the students just aren't coming, and without the students you don't have a financial base," said Sister Mary Ambrose Wozniak, provincial minister for the Felicians in Buffalo. "This has been a very painful and very difficult decision, and it hasn't been made quickly or lightly."

Tuition is $5,900; about half the students receive some financial aid. The actual cost per student of providing an education at the school is $12,300, according to the sisters.

Wozniak broke the news to tearful students during an early afternoon assembly.

"There wasn't a dry eye in Alumni Hall," said senior Erin Vukelic, 17, of Buffalo.

Many parents and alumni were aware of the school's enrollment problems. Last February, the Felicians warned families they might not be able to continue this year.

The Felicians made their final decision after receiving only 15 applications for admission this year.

Still, students, parents and alumni were jolted by the announcement. "Even though you know someone's going to die, when they do, it's still a shock," said Amy Vukelic, Erin's mother.

Erin hopes to study communications at Gannon University in the fall, after being part of the last graduating class from Villa in June.

But she's disappointed she won't be able to return to her "second home" once the school closes. "That's one of the biggest things that upset me. Once you leave, it's hard to stay away from the school," she said.

Villa Maria College nearby on Pine Ridge Road will not be affected. Enrollment at the college, which now offers a bachelor's degree in interior design in addition to a variety of associate's degrees, has been growing, said Wozniak.

Ninety-three Villa Maria Academy students will have to find new high schools next fall.

The Felicians said they will offer grants to cover the difference in tuition for one year at any of the six other all-girls Catholic high schools or at co-educational Catholic high schools in the Diocese of Buffalo.

A meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday to discuss options with parents, said Wozniak.

Thirty-six faculty and staff, including seven Felician sisters, will lose their jobs.

Villa Maria began as the Immaculate Heart of Mary Academy, a secondary school for young women preparing to become nuns, at William and Kennedy streets in Cheektowaga.

In 1918, the academy received its Regents Charter from the state. Included among its thousands of graduates are Ann T. Mikoll, retired senior associate justice of the State Supreme Court Appellate Division, Third Department; actress Christine Baranski; and a variety of doctors, lawyers and teachers.

The current campus on Doat Street was built in 1929. The sisters have not decided what to do with the school building.

e-mail: jtokasz@buffnews.com

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