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Holy Angels announcement stuns students, staff

The news that Holy Angels Academy in North Buffalo will be closing in June came as a shock to its students and staff – and much of the community – Tuesday.

The announcement was made by President Joan Thomas at an afternoon assembly for the 240 students at the private school for girls in grades 6 through 12.

In a letter to alumnae and supporters, Thomas, who also is Holy Angels’ principal, said that the school’s closing is a result of declining enrollment, the impact of the recession on the community and ongoing problems with funding.

“Though difficult to accept, this decision is final,” the letter says.

Students and their teachers wept upon hearing the news.

“Because of the whole [Mayan calendar] end of the world thing, our senior slogan was ‘Saving the best for last,’ ” said senior Rachel Ziarnowski, “and now it’s coming true.” She said that, for seniors, there’s a fear that in the future, when they are asked what high school they graduated from, “People won’t even know what Holy Angels was.”

Girls in the lower classes are concerned about where they will go to school next year, and how they may be able to stay together, she said, and added, “No matter where they go, they are still going to be Holy Angels girls.”

Maureen Maguire, a member of the school’s board of trustees, also attended the assembly Tuesday and said it was an emotional time. “It’s incredibly sad. I’m an alumna of the school, and my mother graduated from Holy Angels,” she said.

Speaking on behalf of the board, she explained the reasons behind the difficult decision to close. “It was no one factor. It was a number of factors, and they all came together in a perfect storm,” Maguire said.

Among the problems she said the board faced:

• The school’s once-promising international program to bring in foreign students hit a major roadblock in recent weeks.

• Enrollment in Holy Angels Prep, which is concluding its first year for grades 6, 7 and 8, has not met projections. The school had hoped to enroll 20 students per class; this year there are only 18 girls in the school.

• Enrollment for incoming freshmen is also down, Maguire said.

Holy Angels is part of a bigger change in Buffalo-area schools, Maguire pointed out, with even public schools consolidating their buildings. Several of the nearby Catholic elementary schools, which Holy Angels would consider “feeders” for its high school, also have closed, including St. Margaret’s School last year and St. Rose of Lima in 2007. In the days and weeks to come, the board will hold meetings for students and parents about their options for the 2013-14 school year, Maguire said, reaching out in particular to area Catholic and private high schools.

Holy Angels Academy is not among the schools run by the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo. It was founded 152 years ago by the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart and continues to operate independently with its own board of trustees.

However, Bishop Richard J. Malone reached out to the school Tuesday with condolences and an offer of support.

“I encourage the families of Holy Angels’ students to consider furthering their Catholic education at any of our surrounding Catholic elementary schools and Catholic high schools,” the bishop said in a statement. “I ask our school communities to work diligently to make it a smooth transition for these young women as they move to a new educational setting.”

While administrators are looking ahead, students and alumnae of Holy Angels continue to share their tears and their stories.

In New York City, Broadway singer Michele Ragusa, who was in town last week to perform with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, said she saw the news on Facebook. “I’m in shock. I’m in absolute shock,” said Ragusa, a 1981 graduate of Holy Angels. “All my friends [from school] are posting about it. It’s like the end of an era.”

Ragusa squeezed in a visit to the school when she was in Western New York last year.

“I was so happy to see some of the nuns were still there,” she said. “I wasn’t even Catholic. My mom and grandmother just insisted I go to Holy Angels. It turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to me. It gave me a chance to grow into who I am today.”

On Twitter, the hashtag #savehaa emerged within an hour of the announcement, and students used it to organize a rally in the afternoon on the school lawn at Hertel Avenue and Shoshone Drive.

Pleas for a reprieve will be difficult to answer.

The Grey Nuns already have contributed $1 million from their retirement fund for the school to receive a bank line of credit, and it may not be paid back.

Even so, Maguire said, the Grey Nuns have agreed to continue to fund Holy Angels scholarship students at other schools in the coming year. And, she said, Holy Angels will still hold its annual fundraising gala at the school this Saturday. They are hoping for a grand turnout to raise as much money as possible – and to say goodbye.

“We want to be able to celebrate one last time with the friends of the school,” Maguire said. “One of our teachers said it best – ‘I can’t imagine being anywhere else.’ ”