Western Mass. faces loss of another Catholic high school

Parents in another Western Massachusetts city are mourning the loss of their Catholic high school, a year after St. Joseph Central High School closed in Pittsfield.

And like parents in Berkshire County, some question the need to pull the plug.

The Rev. Frank Lawlor, the priest in charge of St. Mary's Parish in Westfield, announced Monday that St. Mary High School will close at the end of this academic year in the face of faltering enrollment.

Nine students are signed up to attend St. Mary as first-year students next fall, according to Lawlor. The 27 Bartlett St. school's enrollment is 83 students, down from 166 a decade ago. No Berkshire County residents attend the Westfield school, which graduated its first student in 1903.

The closing would leave Pope Francis High School as the only parochial secondary school in the state's four western counties. That school, now operating from interim space in Chicopee, will move into a new $54.5 million facility this fall. Pope Francis is being erected on the grounds of the former Cathedral High School, hit by a tornado in 2011.

Parents at St. Mary High School are pushing back, just as St. Joe's families did in Pittsfield last year. But they face the same challenges of declining enrollments, rising school expenses and increased competition from charter schools.

In Pittsfield, school leaders and the diocese said in late 2016 that falling enrollments compelled them to close St. Joe's, after the number of students dropped to 68 from as many as 300 students in 2006.

In Westfield, some are questioning the fairness of how resources are shared among parochial schools in the Springfield diocese.

Erin E. Carrier, president of the St. Mary's School Board, said the diocese is guilty of "negligence" in allowing disparities in funding for the region's Catholic schools.

"We've created an unbalanced and inequitable system," she said.

Mark D. Dupont, a spokesman for the diocese, said that unlike Pope Francis, which is run by the diocese, St. Mary is a parish school and controls its own fate. Its leaders approached the diocese two decades ago asking to be taken over, but the diocese declined at the time and is not responsible for the Westfield school's present struggles.

"We were not able to absorb them 20 years ago and were quite clear about that," Dupont said.

Dupont said that Lawlor, the parish priest, had little choice about the decision to shutter the high school.

"He wasn't in a position to risk bankrupting the whole parish community," Dupont said.

"I am personally devastated by this decision and all I can say is I am sorry," Lawlor wrote in a letter to the St. Mary's community Monday. "I know that this news will impact a great number of parishioners."

The decision does not affect the parish's elementary and preschool programs.

Bad trend

In a meeting Monday at the school, Lawlor turned away pleas from some to fight the decision, saying demographic trends are against them.

"In this situation it would be easy to point fingers and to try to assign blame," Lawlor said in his community letter. "But the sad reality is that our high school has fallen victim to a confluence of demographic and financial trends that make it impossible for us to go forward."

He said the decision to close came after months of study.

One factor was concern that a school with too small an enrollment could "adversely impact students," according to the parish.

"While we have prided ourselves on small classes and individual attention we have now reached the levels that the quality of our educational environment has to be questioned," the priest said in his letter.

Lawlor noted that all schools face enrollment declines, including public schools in Westfield. That city forecasts that its high school enrollment will fall below 1,000 students by 2026. It is now about 1,190.

Dupont, the diocese spokesman, said Pope Francis is positioned to receive former St. Mary High School students. He noted that some Westfield students already attend Pope Francis, roughly 13 miles away.

The cost of attending the new Springfield school is higher. Tuition at St. Mary is $8,300 a year, according to Dupont, and $9,300 at Pope Francis.

Lawlor said Monday his parish is already taking a loss on school operations, pointing out that it costs about $12,000 a year to educate students.

But the priest said the plan to close is driven more by the enrollment problem than overall finances.

In Pittsfield, St. Joe's had run up a $4.5 million deficit over five years and needed an estimated $1 million in repairs.

"The trends don't lie," Dupont said of population figures and parochial enrollments, of the same kind that led to the closing of St. Joe's. "Even the most robust parish would have to think long and hard about the finances of running a high school."

Dupont said he believes that St. Mary's tuition may be among the lowest in New England, and it still has trouble attracting enough students.

"They did all the tried-and-true things to make this a success," he said of the school.

Parent action

But within the parish, not everyone is certain of that. Carrier said St. Mary's supporters are meeting this week to consider their options.

"We are currently trying to secure a meeting with the board leadership and the bishop," Carrier said.

While St. Mary High School is run by the parish rather than the diocese, Carrier said she believes the Most Rev. Mitchell T. Rozanski, bishop of the diocese, has influence over the fate of the Westfield school because he supervises Lawlor, the parish priest.

Carrier said her school panel had no say in the decision to close. It was informed a month ago that a closing was possible, then was recently informed by Lawlor that he had decided to end operations this spring.

That word reached the St. Mary's community Monday at a tearful meeting attended by roughly 300 people.

"The emotions ran the gamut," Carrier said. "There was sorrow, crying, anger and frustration."

Some of that frustration stems, she said, from a belief that the diocese should do more for all Catholic schools in its region.

Dupont called it "inevitable" that some would seek to blame the diocese.

"The facts are outside the diocese's control," he said, but added: "No one begrudges the parents for being mad and upset. ... No one takes that away from them."

In online comments Tuesday, many people questioned the diocese's investment in Pope Francis High School.

This winter, the diocese began reviewing the future of all elementary programs, including those in the Berkshires, in an effort led in part by Amy Gelinas, the former St. Joe's principal.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.


If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.

Powered by Creative Circle Media Solutions