Two south St. Louis schools to close; planning efforts to continue

St. John the Baptist and Immaculate Heart of Mary Schools — two of the nine schools that are part of the South City Planning Committee — will close after the 2013-14 school year due to enrollment and financial struggles. The planning effort will continue among the parishes.

The other seven schools will remain open for the 2014-15 academic year, according to an announcement Nov. 7. School families from the two schools to close can choose to attend any other Catholic school in the future.

Parents and parishioners of the nine Catholic schools in south St. Louis met recently to receive an update on options being considered by the planning committee and to offer input on what an eventual recommendation should include for the South City Collaborative. The collaborative includes Immaculate Heart of Mary, Our Lady of Sorrows, St. Ambrose, St. James the Greater, St. Joan of Arc, St. John the Baptist, St. Margaret of Scotland, St. Raphael the Archangel and St. Stephen Protomartyr parishes. The planning committee is comprised of pastors and principals from the nine schools.

They have been meeting since early this year to discuss the issues and challenges facing the schools in this region and to consider various models for collaboration that will sustain quality Catholic education for the long term. The group studied financial and enrollment forecasts and related data and results of surveys of parishioners and school parents. The effort is aimed at a revitalization of Catholic education in south St. Louis.

Representatives from St. John the Baptist and Immaculate Heart of Mary will remain part of the collaborative's conversation as it strives to ensure that the students of their schools have a long-term option for continuing their Catholic education. The archdiocesan Catholic Education Center is assisting with this transition.

The South City Planning Committee noted in a statement that it is "encouraged by the participation in the discussion thus far but realizes that additional time is needed to do this process full justice. Collaboration among such a variety of entities is complex. Therefore, the committee has plans to continue to study financial and enrollment trends in the area in order to fully discern a sustainable, strategic vision for Catholic education in south St. Louis."

Enrollment this year at Immaculate Heart of Mary School is 111, and at St. John the Baptist it is 126.

Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish was created in 1951 and the school was dedicated along with the new church in 1954. The school had opened in the fall of 1953 with an enrollment of 400 and with the School Sisters of Notre Dame on staff. Of the 400 students, 91 lived on one block of Robert Avenue, a block in which all of the families on both sides of the street were members of the newly formed parish. The parish was created to relieve overcrowded conditions in neighboring parishes. In 1964, the school enrollment was 923.

St. John the Baptist needed to raise $250,000 by Dec. 31, 2012, to help pay for a projected budget deficit for the 20013-14 school year. The school met its goal with an impressive effort by staff, parents, parishioners and school alumni. It was announced in January that the school would be open for this school year. Enrollment at the school, in the Bevo Mill neighborhood, has been affected over the years because of demographic and economic changes.

St. John the Baptist Parish was founded in 1914, and the parish elementary school opened that same year with 235 students and was staffed by the Sisters of the Most Precious Blood of O'Fallon. By 1964, enrollment was more than 1,000 students. A parish high school began in 1922 and remained open until 2008.

Enrollment in elementary schools in the South City deanery has declined from 4,127 in 2003-04 to 2,546 this school year, according to figures from the archdiocesan Office of Communication and Planning. Enrollment is down from 3,058 six years ago, although last year the decrease was only 46.

The planning was initiated by the parishes. It is consistent with the direction of Archbishop Robert J. Carlson's Alive In Christ mission advancement initiative. One of the goals of this initiative is to facilitate proactive planning that encourages the development of strategic plans and collaboration among parishes and schools. This planning will assist in creating Catholic schools that are consistent with the archbishop's vision of schools that are "centers of faith, learning and service ... vibrant in their Catholic identity, growing, financially healthy, and able to assist those in need."

The planning committee, which includes the pastor and/or principal of each represented parish school, has sought to ensure excellent Catholic elementary education will continue to be provided in the long term for all who desire it.

The collaborative has initiated activities and communication, such as a partnership with Catholic high schools; coordinated various activities for the school community, such as a joint confirmation retreat and advanced high school credit algebra course; and advancement activities, such as initiating a "Scholarship Sunday" collection for south city Catholic elementary schools.

Msgr. Michael Turek, dean of the South City Deanery and pastor of St. Joan of Arc Parish, said Catholic education "is so very important to our Catholic families. We are not trying to arrive at a band-aid solution." The committee is taking time "to do greater justice to the situation that has been entrusted to the committee."

The committee will continue to work with school families, he said. "This is not a quick-fix situation. We appreciate their patience, understanding and all the input we have garnered from them over this time period. We look forward to continuing the conversation with them as together we work for a solution that will best serve our children in our parishes, not just for the moment but for the future."

Earlier this year, Msgr. Turek said the deanery was launching a "proactive initiative to deal with the situation of Catholic schools in the south city due to demographic changes, rising costs and other factors" that also have been evident in other areas of the archdiocese and nation.

The planning, he said, considers "what our Catholic schools need to look like and become in the future for the best in education and faith formation possible with the best stewardship of resources and staff."

The South City Deanery includes three other schools which draw from a wider area: St. Frances Cabrini Academy, St. Cecilia and Marian Middle School and Sacred Heart Villa preschool.

Nearly 10 years ago, the South City and Northeast County deaneries took part in a process of planning for the future of both parishes and schools in those areas. Ten of the South City Deanery's 35 parishes and four of its 18 elementary schools closed. The plan saw a vitality emerge among the remaining parishes and a reorganization allowing the Church to better serve a smaller Catholic population and the needs of various ethnic groups. 

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