Treasuring history: Many say farewell as schools close

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Due to declining enrollment and financial challenges, five Catholic schools in the Diocese of Providence have had to close their doors. The following are stories about their final graduations.

ST. FRANCIS

WARWICK —Students attending a Mass celebrated June 19 to mark both the closing of St. Francis of Assisi School and the end of the academic year were told to cherish the wonderful memories that they have of the parish school and to build upon the solid foundation that they received from the school’s dedicated faculty and staff.

More than 100 parishioners, alumni and parents also attended the Mass, celebrated by Father John A. Kiley, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Church.

In his homily, Father Kiley told those gathered to embrace the Catholic faith that was strengthened at St. Francis School, and thanked the many individuals who contributed to the school’s success and helped shape the lives of thousands of children who attended the school since its opening in 1962.

“An awful lot depends on this foundation,” Father Kiley emphasized. “This is just the beginning.”

Many parents noted that while they understood why the school was closing, it was nevertheless a somber occasion because St. Francis School had become a treasured part of so many lives.

“It was a safe haven,” Colleen Champlin recalled. “We were all family. St. Francis School was the best kept secret.”

Chaplain described the school closing as “painful” and added that her son Ryan had cried the previous night when he realized that his many friends would be attending different schools next year.

“He got a great foundation here at St. Francis,” she concluded.

According to a letter sent from Father Kiley earlier this year to parents, “Declining enrollment and increasing costs have been a concern at St. Francis School for over 10 years.” He added that the parish had rescued the school by selling the old convent and by a successful capital campaign.

Father Kiley noted that registration figures for the 2009-10 academic year were low, with only 91 registered students — far below the minimum 150 needed for the school to remain viable.

He said that there were also 10 families who owed $37,633.86 in back tuition.

Faculty member Mark Pertuso remarked that it was a particularly sad day for him because he was a graduate of St. Francis School.

“It was a great experience,” the middle school religion and social studies teacher said, recalling his own formation at the 47 year-old school. “I was well-prepared for high school by going to St. Francis School. After graduating from Bishop Hendricken High School, Pertuso earned a bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Providence College.

Pertuso, who has been hired to teach at St. Pius V School in Providence, said it was gratifying to witness his students’ academic and spiritual growth, and work in an environment where students are allowed to practice their faith and express their belief in God.

SAINT ANN

PROVIDENCE — Father Michael Menna told members of the graduating class of St. Ann School June 17 that while he could be sad that the parish school is closing, he is gratified by the many significant accomplishments that the school’s alumni have achieved in all walks of life.

“You are moving forward and that is a good thing,” said Father Menna, pastor of St. Ann Church. “You are starting something new, a new journey.”

After 93 years of service to the students and families of Providence, St. Ann School closed at the end of this school year because of declining enrollment and a lack of financial resources.

Father Menna thanked the school’s alumni, faculty and staff, and parents for their sacrifices and contributions made to the school.

“We are proud to be part of this wonderful school,” said graduate Christina Iaconelli.

Principal Harold J. Wright told the graduates that he and all of the teachers have confidence in the class of 2009, but emphasized that it important that they have confidence in themselves.

“You must dream big,” said Wright. “Keep your faith close to you. You are a very important part of the last chapter of the school. God be with you as you begin the next chapter of your history.”

Salutatorian Rachel Ricci reminded her classmates never to forget the school.

“With one short ceremony, and with one flip of a tassel, when we think back on our early days, let us reflect on St.?Ann’s,” she said.

Retired Superior Court Judge Dominic?Cresto, an alumni of the parish school, addressed the graduates and extended his personal congratulations as they marked the special occasion.

“We are here to celebrate and to be sad because St. Ann’s, the school as we know it, will be no more,” said Judge Cresto. “But that is something that can never be taken away from us. I have been ever grateful for the values and work ethic received at St. Ann’s.

“It is a sad thing for something to end that has done so much good, but that does not necessarily means it’s over,” said Father Menna. “We can celebrate the past and embrace the future.”

SAINT BRENDAN

EAST PROVIDENCE —Tears turned to bright smiles June 19 at St. Brendan School as parents, faculty, staff and students gathered for a special Mass to mark the closing of the school and the academic year.

Father Przemyslaw Lepak, associate pastor of St. Brendan Church, was the main concelebrant of the Mass, held on the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Father John Unsworth, pastor, served as concelebrant.

While everyone was sad to see the 65 year-old facility close, faces brightened as those gathered for the celebration acknowledged the many wonderful friendships developed at St. Brendan’s, and the important gifts of faith and knowledge that they received from the dedicated and compassionate staff and the Sisters of Mercy who formerly staffed the school.

“All of us met Christ here in this school,” Father Lepak said, urging the congregation to always be proud of the parish school and its mission to provide a quality Catholic education to young residents of the East Bay area.

Principal Joseph R. Renzulli and Father Unsworth informed parents of the school’s closing in a March 12 letter, citing declining enrollment and a growing financial deficit as the chief reasons that led the school board, parish finance council and parish trustees to seek permission from Bishop Thomas J. Tobin to borrow a large sum of money to complete the school year and discontinue operations.

“At the present time we have only 95 students registered for next year, a number that would not allow us to sustain a fully operational school without eliminating many of the excellent programs our school is noted for,” Renzulli and Father Unsworth wrote.

“We are truly grateful for the many parents (and grandparents) who have helped us keep our school going these past few years. Without your loyalty, generous support and many hours of volunteer help, we would not have been able to sustain the quality education we have been able to provide through this year,”

“There is never an end to anything,” Father Unsworth told worshipers at the closing Mass. “The best is yet to come.” He presented small gifts to several volunteers and school board members in thanks for their dedication to the school.

Father Unsworth was honored with a poem, titled “Our Best Friend,” that spoke of the priest’s unwavering love for and support of the school’s staff and students. Each student was then presented with a green and silver, nautically-themed pin, commemorating St. Brendan, an Irish saint known for his voyages. The pins were inscribed “St. Brendan School – Successfully Navigating Future Challenges.”

For Renzulli, the closing of the school also marked the end of a long, successful career as an educator and administrator. He noted that after spending 30 years in the Providence Public Schools, he came to St. Brendan’s more than a decade ago, only expecting to stay a short while.

“When I came here, I really found a jewel,” he remarked. “At first, I only thought I was going to be here three to five years. This is my eleventh. I think it speaks volumes about how wonderful the school and community is.’

CHRIST THE REDEEMER

WEST?WARWICK — Students, teachers, faculty, and families were present for the last Mass for Christ the Redeemer Academy, on Thursday, June 18.

For the first time since 1887, students will not be returning in September for classes at Christ the Redeemer Academy.

Msgr. Jacques Plante, pastor of SS.?John and James said, “No one is that upset at the end of a school year but the difference is that there is also a sadness because we won’t see you in September.”

Msgr. Plante gave each student a bookmark with the report cards that included the school name and on the back, a poem entitled “Anyway.” Msgr. Plante said that the poem that he chose was one that hung on Mother Teresa's wall in Calcutta.

“I give it to you that you recognize what lessons we have taught you, the lesson of Christ the Redeemer,” said Msgr. Plante.

“I am going to miss my friends,” said Miranda McLean.

Randy Tella said she is going to miss the warm atmosphere at Christ the Redeemer Academy.

“It’s like a family here,” explained Tella.

I’m very saddened,” said Principal Dr. Frank Pallotta. “The children, families, and staff understand the challenges we were up against. We truly developed a community of faith and a community of families that came together to preach the Gospel. That goal has certainly been accomplished.”

He offered his words of gratitude to students, parents, faculty and staff for the blessings that they have brought to the parish.

Merideth Woodside, a parent of students at C.R.A, explained that, “It’s sad, my oldest has been here since kindergarten. It’s bittersweet but I guess it’s time to move on.”

Fifth grade teacher, Catherine Mitchell said,“as we go our separate ways, we need to keep each other in our prayers. He’ll bless all of us again, and we must strive to do our best and seek his divine plan for our lives.”

SAINT MARY, PAWTUCKET

PAWTUCKET — Members of the last graduating class of St. Mary School were told always to rely on God and to build upon the strong academic and spiritual foundation that they received at the 154 year-old school.

“You’ve reached a significant milestone in your primary journey,” Father William J. Ledoux, pastor of St. Mary Church, told the 11 graduates. “With God, you can achieve anything.”

Father Ledoux told the graduates that they had received the gifts of faith and knowledge, and to use them wisely.

The pastor told the students to “make a difference in the world” following in the footsteps of their predecessors.

“We can only estimate the number of graduates of the school,” Father Ledoux added. “You have beautiful memories of your years spent on George Street.”

In a February 9 letter to parents, Father Ledoux announced that St. Mary School would merge with nearby Woodlawn Catholic Regional School at the end of the academic year and that each child attending St. Mary School would be guaranteed a spot at Woodlawn in September.

“Since 1999, enrollment has plummeted from 235 to 139 students as costs increased and the economy soured,” Father Ledoux wrote. “Additionally, the 154-year-old building is in need of capital improvements to ensure the continued safety of the students and staff.

“As a priest, this is by far one of the most difficult decisions I have made; however, I am confident that this was the best solution to ensure the children are provided with an affordable and viable Catholic education,” Father Ledoux concluded.

On June 14, parishioners, alumni, staff, and students’ families paid tribute to St. Mary School at a special Mass celebrated by Father Ledoux, followed by tours of the school. One of the highlights of the celebration was a visit by former principal Mercy Sister Mary Edwardine Black, who ministered at the school for many years.

At the conclusion of the graduation ceremony, Father Ledoux presented each graduate with an inscribed medallion. On one side was an etching of the school; the other was inscribed with the name of the graduate and the inspiring message, “Help us God, each day to follow you along the way. Teach us to be kind like you in everything we say and do.”