WESTERLY — How does the closing of a beloved Catholic school, which has been an important part of many lives for 55 years, impact a parish community? One could surmise that it is like the passing of a good friend whose memory will remain in people’s hearts for decades to come.
Naturally, as with the loss of a friend, a community experiences shock when first hearing the news of a school closure, and myriad feelings rush in. Eventually, after reflection, sharing memories, and the passing of time, acceptance comes, and a community moves on, trusting in God’s will for the next blessing. This has been the journey of the parishioners of St. Pius X in Westerly who had to close their school this June.
In March, the Catholic Schools Office announced that Bishop Thomas J. Tobin had approved the requested closure of St. Pius X School due to a “sharp projected decline in enrollment,” and “an already mounting deficit at the school.”
Since its 1963 opening, St. Pius X’s dedicated priests and school staff, supported by their parishioners, have prepared hundreds of children to enter the world to do their part in transforming it with their knowledge, faith, gifts, careers and vocations.
The unfortunate reality is that it can be difficult to keep Catholic schools open. Even the most vigilant parishes and pastors are up against a lot of cultural and financial challenges which sometimes impact a school’s viability. However, St. Pius X Regional came up with a plan to celebrate its successes and legacy instead of just focusing on the sadness that engulfed them. In short, they were going to go out in style with grace and gratitude.
Once the sad news of its closing was announced, St. Pius pastor, Father Michael Najim, and his parish set about creating a plan on how to give the school a proper farewell, not only for the sake of the current students, but for the hundreds of people that have been connected to the school during its 55 years.
The school celebrated their regular monthly school Mass on Friday, June 1. In a touching moment after Mass, as everyone knelt in prayer for Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, some of the older students knelt behind Father Najim and Seminarian Dan Mahoney, playing guitars and tambourines, while singing “I can Only Imagine.”
An important part of the plan was a school Mass of Thanksgiving which was celebrated on June 10. Father Najim, who grew up in Westerly and is a former graduate of the school, celebrated the Mass along with Pastor Emeritus Father Ray Suriani. They were assisted at Mass by Deacons Fran Valliere and Ray Castaldi. The student body, many alumni, past and present teachers and principals, and members of local parishes were in attendance.
Prior to Mass, student Joe Trombino welcomed everyone.
“At St. Pius X we have learned that the love of God is made present to us each time we celebrate Mass, and that we are called by God to go and share his love with others,” Trombino said. “Even though we bid farewell to our school, we continue to embrace the mission to which God calls us: to share his love with everyone.”
During Mass, various students were readers, gift bearers, and their stringed orchestra played selections before Mass.
In his homily, Father Najim paid tribute for the “gift” of the venerable school.
“As the preface to the Eucharistic prayer states, ‘it is right and just’ that we should gather this morning to give thanks to the Lord for the gift and legacy of St. Pius X School,” he said, noting the school’s legacy “is and will be sacred and enduring because we have always strived to help our students know the love of God and strive to do God’s will in their lives.”
He also spoke of how the legacy of the school will live on, and Catholic education and the will of God will continue to be done, with Catholic education continuing to be a priority in each family, and in the parish’s religious education and youth ministry programs.
A second event to celebrate the life of the school took place on June 15 in which the students were treated to a “Bash” day with a cookout, a variety of activities including a rock wall, bounce houses, a photo booth, and an onsite broadcast by local radio station WBLQ/1230 AM.
The final Graduation Mass was held on Monday evening, June 18.
Student Elizabeth Minor, one of the 18 graduates, welcomed everyone and reminded her friends to always remember the importance of “Faith, Hope, Love, Charity, Courage and Perseverance.”
The Knights of Columbus participated, and students served as readers and gift bearers. After the presentation of the diplomas, student Skylar Massey read a graduation prayer which in part read, “May your foundation in academics give you the knowledge that you need in this life to live the life God has planned for you.”
Father Najim’s homily reminded them that being the final graduating class is something they will always remember, but that it also came with an obligation to carry on the legacy they have received, “especially the spiritual lessons of discipleship,” and he urged them “to live your lives in holiness.” The Mass ended with all joyfully singing the hymn “City of God,” followed by a reception.
During the last few months many parishioners reflected on the blessings of the school. Audra Wilks, Class of 1984, whose children also attended St. Pius, shared that the school gave her a “strong Catholic foundation” where she made lifelong friends.
In a written reflection, a current student, who remained anonymous, mentioned that he had gotten in trouble at school one day and had to talk with principal, Mrs. Rufful. In reflecting upon that incident, he said, “I realized that I was growing away from God. Thank you, Mrs. Rufful, for getting me back on track to a loving relationship with God and others around me.”
A retired St. Pius X’s teacher, Mrs. Heidi Cozzolino said, “The years I spent teaching at St. Pius enriched my life in ways I never could have imagined. Even as I taught my students, they often also taught me.”