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Catholic schools close on sad note As 14 shut down permanently, pupils, parents, teachers strive to come to terms with prospects

The usual end-of-the-school-year excitement was muted this week by lingering bitterness and disappointment in 14 Catholic elementary schools that are closing permanently.

Eighth-grade graduates received their diplomas knowing they wouldn't have an alma mater to visit.

Younger pupils said goodbye to classmates and teachers they might never see again.

And parishioners wondered if the shutdown of schools was a precursor to the closing of their beloved churches.

"If you don't have kids, you have an old, old parish, and when people die, you're not going to have a parish anymore," said Michael Lovullo, a member of the school board of St. Rose of Lima School, which will hold its final graduation this evening.

Citing huge deficits and declining enrollments, diocesan officials announced the school closings in January. They would not reverse any of the plans, despite efforts by several groups of parents to save schools in Cheektowaga, Dunkirk and Buffalo.

"They made the wrong decision," said Dr. Helen Suchanick, who has two girls at St. Hyacinth School in Dunkirk, which is closing after 125 years. "It's a shame. We had a beautiful school. We had wonderful teachers."

Come September, more than 1,000 elementary school pupils will find themselves in new surroundings. More than 200 teachers and staff were looking for new jobs in a crowded teaching market.

The closings are the most at one time in diocese history.

Many of the displaced children appear headed to other Catholic schools -- albeit grudgingly.

"We felt a little betrayed. We felt we were promised a couple more years to get things going," said Dana Herman, whose son, Evan, attended Most Precious Blood School in Angola and will enter second grade at Southtowns Catholic School, about 15 minutes away in Lake View. "They gave us false hopes is what I feel."

Others said they presented workable plans to attract new students and improve finances.

"We had specific ideas for fundraising and getting kids into our school," Lovullo said. "They didn't give us enough time to act on plans we had in place."

In Cheektowaga and Depew, strongholds of Catholicism for many years, only two Catholic schools, Mary Queen of Angels on Rosewood Terrace and Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament on French Road, will remain beyond this week.

Just four years ago, the town and village had 12 Catholic schools. At St. Josaphat on William Street -- which, with 141 pupils, has the largest enrollment among the closing schools -- parents argued that their school could turn a financial corner with an influx of pupils from nearby schools that would shut down.

Diocesan officials didn't see it the same way. They said none of the plans presented was financially viable.

The school closings could mean an exodus of parishioners at some of the churches.

Herman said she and her family would become members at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, where Southtowns Catholic School is located, rather than remain at Most Precious Blood.

"We're going to want to feel a part of that school," she said. "We're going to end up changing. We haven't yet, but it's inevitable."

In most cases, churches spent half to two-thirds of their total budgets supporting the 14 schools.

But some parishioners say they believe the small, tight-knit schools helped keep their parishes vibrant, and they consider the money well spent.

"A lot of our parishioners were parishioners of St. Agnes only because of the school," said Jackie Corbi, who lives in Buffalo's Lovejoy neighborhood and has a son at the school. "This neighborhood is going to have nothing now. . . . When you have the school families, you have the younger families, the families who are going to be around longer. That school is so needed in this area."

If her son, Jacob, enrolls at Trinity Academy, Corbi said, she will become a member of St. Teresa Church in South Buffalo, where the school is located, so she can be more closely involved with his education.

"In my mind, that's the proper thing to do," she said.

Bishop Edward U. Kmiec already is considering a plan to merge St. Agnes parish with St. Francis of Assisi and Visitation parishes, also in Lovejoy.

But diocesan officials said the school closings and discussions about possible parish mergers and consolidations were two separate issues.

A school closing and subsequent departure of some families "in itself would not be a tipping point for the future of a parish," said Kevin A. Keenan, diocesan spokesman.

Sometimes, the loss of a school helps a parish focus on turning around weak finances and lackluster ministries, he added.

In the Town of Tonawanda, nonetheless, a plan to merge St. Edmund Church with St. Christopher was announced just a few months after Kmiec informed parents that St. Edmund School was closing.

The loss of the school made it crucial for the parish to approach the future differently, because "without a school it's difficult to run a parish," said the Rev. Robert Wozniak, pastor of St. Edmund.

In the merger, the St. Edmund school building will be used for parish outreach, religious education classes and bereavement programs -- freeing space to add three classrooms at St. Christopher School.

The loss of the school upset John Mastrangelo so much that he stopped attending St. Edmund -- or any diocesan parish. Instead, he heads for Sunday Mass at Holy Infant Jesus Shrine in North Tonawanda, run by the Pallottine Fathers independently of the diocese.

"I'm not giving the diocese another penny. I'm so bitter toward them," he said. "They ruined a good school. It's just a shame."

At some parishes, a handful of fuming parents boycotted the school-closing Mass.

But some parents also expressed relief that their children would be in schools that aren't struggling year to year to stay open.

While plans haven't been made yet for other buildings being closed, displaced pupils are scattering among dozens of Catholic schools.

"There's a lot of heartache, a lot of sadness," said Monsignor Angelo Caligiuri, pastor of Infant of Prague Church in Cheektowaga. "But the kids are very resilient."

The school had a peak enrollment of 1,120 pupils in 1960 but just 117 this year. Most will transfer to SS. Peter & Paul School in Williamsville, Caligiuri said.

More than two-thirds of the pupils at Blessed Sacrament School in the Town of Tonawanda registered at St. Amelia School, and the rest chose from among nine other Tonawanda-area Catholic schools.

With the change of schools, some families discovered their children now might get an improved education, said Diane Vigrass, superintendent of Catholic schools.

"They never realized that things could be better, that there could be more offerings," she said.

Vigrass said she hoped that no more schools would have to close but gave no guarantees.

e-mail: jtokasz@buffnews.com

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Shutting down

These Catholic elementary schools are closing this year:

*St. Agnes, St. Bernard and St. Rose of Lima in Buffalo.

*Kolbe Catholic School, Resurrection, St. Barnabas, St. Josaphat, Infant of Prague and St. Aloysius Gonzaga in Cheektowaga.

*St. Edmund and Blessed Sacrament in the Town of Tonawanda.

*Most Precious Blood in Angola.

*St. Hyacinth in Dunkirk.

*Genesee-Wyoming Catholic Central in Attica.

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