WESTFIELD – A tumultuous two hour meeting was held for St. Mary’s parents, students and staff on Monday evening to inform them that after more than 100 years, St. Mary’s high school will be closing at the end of the academic year.
Fr. Frank Lawlor, head of schools at St. Mary’s, said that St. Mary’s Elementary School, which serves pre-school age 3 to grade 8, will not be affected in any way by this action.
Lawlor, referring to a letter he wrote to the parish community over the weekend, said a confluence of demographic and financial trends have made it impossible to keep the high school open. Lawlor said the demographic issue of declining enrollment that is being faced by all schools, public and private is the real reason.
Lawlor said currently there are less than 90 students at St. Mary’s High School, down from 120 students five or six years ago, and that trend is expected to continue. He said only nine students are signed up for next year’s freshman class. Lawlor also cited Westfield Public Schools’ recent enrollment study which he said projects a drop of 15% in the number of high school students over the next ten years.
‘We focused on creating a small family-type atmosphere with individual attention to our students,” Lawlor said, adding that it’s become “too small, and the quality of education is in jeopardy.”
Another factor mentioned by Lawlor is attendance at the church. He said fewer families with young children are coming to church, and, overall, families are having fewer children. He said parents also aren’t willing to pay the $8,500 tuition to send their child to St. Mary’s High School. “It’s each parent’s decision to make (as to) what’s in the best interest of the family and child,” he said.
Lawlor did say that Westfield Public Schools are very good, and have “a great reputation.” He also mentioned Williston and Suffield Academy as private school options.
When asked about Pope Francis High School, Lawlor said that would be the alternative for a Catholic education. Pope Francis High School has been meeting for two years in the closed Holyoke Catholic School, and will open this fall in a new school building at the site of Cathedral High School, closed after damage from the June 1, 2011 tornado.
The new $55 million Pope Francis High School is being built to house approximately 330 students and will contain modern baseball, softball, football and other outdoor fields.
Lawlor said the opening of the new Pope Francis High School building was not part of the decision to close St. Mary’s, “”It had no direct impact on us at all,” Lawlor said. “This was a local decision done in conjunction with the diocese. St. Mary’s is a parish school; we are locally controlled,” he said.
“I think it’s a tragedy. It’s a very sad day. We are on the brink of closing after 100 years,” Lawlor said. He said the parish and alumnae have always been very generous and supportive of the school. “It’s not monetary. There are just not enough students,” he said.
Baseball coach Troy Collins also called it, “a real sad day.” Collins, who has coached baseball at the parochial school for the past thirteen years and led them to a state championship in 2017, said he was told the closing is due to financial reasons. He said the financial situation hasn’t changed that much since he’s been at the school.
Collins also said the timing is bad, a week before the start of spring sports, and just after a big kickoff was held. “Coming from a state championship last year – for a small school, what an achievement that was – It’s really going to be tough on the kids,” Collins said.
“We’re all like family,” said Collins, whose three children attended St. Mary’s, adding, “They’re not going to go quietly. It’s a strong community and they stay together. We will have our say.”
Father Lawlor’s letter ended with an apology. “I know that this news will impact a great number of parishioners who have supported our High School for a long time. I am personally devastated by this decision and all I can say is I am sorry. The St. Mary’s community will always be grateful to our friends and alumni who have supported this school for many years. The spirit and the success of St. Mary’s High School will continue on and we can all cherish the gifts and memories that the school has provided for over 100 years,” he wrote.
Since the 1999-2000 school year, St. Mary’s High School student enrollment has gone from 140 students to an anticipated 80 next year, an enrollment drop of 43%. Whereas, the new Pope Francis High School is being built despite an enrollment drop of 74% from 1,262 to 330 during that same period. Data from 1999-2000 is from the combined enrollment of Cathedral and Holyoke Catholic high schools which now comprise Pope Francis.
At their peak in the early-1980’s, St. Mary’s had nearly 250 students while Cathedral/Holyoke Catholic, combined, were almost 2,500.
In data released by the Springfield Diocese earlier this year, as devastating as the June 2011 tornado may have been, it seemed to be a financial windfall for the Diocese generating approximately $60 million in insurance claims and an additional $25-30 million in Federal Emergency (FEMA) reimbursement.
Westfield residents will recall the uproar of the opposition to building a 600 student elementary school on Ashley and Cross Streets for about half the cost to build Pope Francis High School, but it would have housed nearly double the students.
There are currently 81 parish churches across the Springfield Diocese. In 1986 there were 136. Each church contributes 7% of their weekly mass collections to a diocesan general education fund, including St. Mary’s and other parishes with schools. The Diocese determines where and how those funds are distributed.