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St. Basil students, alums are devastated after learning the Jenkintown Catholic school will close

“We understand this unwelcome news brings shock, heartbreak and uncertainty to many in our school community,” a school leader wrote.

St. Basil Academy fans and its panther mascot had little to cheer about at a 2017 loss. The school just announced it's closing in a letter to parents.
St. Basil Academy fans and its panther mascot had little to cheer about at a 2017 loss. The school just announced it's closing in a letter to parents.Read more

St. Basil Academy, the 89-year-old private all-girls high school in Jenkintown, will close at the end of the academic year, school leaders said Thursday.

Run by the Ukranian Catholic Sisters of St. Basil the Great, the school faces declining enrollment and an inability to make ends meet, Sister Dorothy Ann Busowski, the provincial superior of the order, said in a letter to the St. Basil community, calling it a “painful, but necessary decision."

The news comes amid a bleak financial picture for many private schools that had struggled prior to COVID-19 and now find themselves in an even tougher spot.

Tuition can no longer sustain St. Basil. Officials launched a financial campaign to shore up the school’s finances last year, they said, but fell short of its goals to establish a $3-$5 million endowment, generate $300,000 in annual giving, and retain at least 60 students in the freshman class.

The school currently has an enrollment of 226 students, with 41 in its freshman class.

“We understand this unwelcome news brings shock, heartbreak and uncertainty to many in our school community,” Sister Dorothy Ann wrote. “We, too, are heartbroken. While it pains us deeply to make this decision, we wanted to be sure we had exhausted every possible option and solution before officially making this announcement.”

In a letter to department heads, school officials said the decision came despite the “considerable generosity” of families and alumnae and after careful evaluation.

“Among other Catholic schools, public, charter, and private, Saint Basil Academy has long faced a challenging financial picture, due in part to increased competition among other schools for students and funding and, most recently, the financial burden of the coronavirus pandemic,” Connie D’Angelo, the school’s principal, said in the letter to school staff.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops last week issued a statement condemning a proposed pandemic federal relief bill because, the group said, it excluded support for children and families in nonpublic schools. As many as 150 Catholic schools nationwide have closed because of the pandemic, the conference said — many in low-income areas.

The St. Basil news drew swift, strong reaction from alumnae, parents and students, who received the closure news in an email.

Hanna Hesson, a St. Basil senior, awoke to what seemed like a bad dream: her friends telling her via group text that their school was closing.

“The last four years have been the best, and I just feel so sad for the underclassmen who won’t have the opportunities that I have,” said Hesson, 17. “I knew they were having problems, but I thought we were going to get past it.”

When Hanna was in eighth grade, Basil was on her list of schools to consider for high school, but it was not a lock. Her mother, Cheryl, is an alumna, but never pushed.

“But when we visited, she said, ‘This is my home, this is where I belong,’” Cheryl Hesson recalled.

St. Basil’s financial trouble was no secret, Cheryl Hesson said, and she had worried about the effects of COVID-19 on an already beleaguered bottom line. Now, she worries about what her daughter’s senior year is going to be like, whether staff will leave.

“They’ve been swimming upstream for so long, and maybe they’re just tired,” said Cheryl Hesson. As a student, she took three buses to get to St. Basil from Philadelphia’s Port Richmond section; as a single parent, she made sacrifices to send her child to the school, where tuition is $14,550 annually.

“It was always worth it,” she said.

Marcella Canfarotta, who graduated with Cheryl Hesson from St. Basil in 1987, can’t talk about the imminent closure without getting weepy.

“There was always this sense of community,” said Canfarotta. “It’s a small school, and everybody looked out for each other, like a family."

Canfarotta has a host of vivid, happy memories of school, from the friends she made to seeing Sister Suzanne, the art teacher, hopping on a tractor lawn mower in full habit and black heels to tend to the grass on the school’s campus. Canfarotta and a number of her classmates came from the city, and the school’s pastoral campus felt like a haven.

“We still talk about the geese that chased us onto the road," Canfarotta said.

The Basil sisterhood has stayed with her even in adulthood, Canfarotta said. When she got in a serious accident earlier this year, high school classmates surrounded her with love and care packages.

“No matter where I’ve gone in my life, there’s always someone who knows a St. Basil’s girl. For being such a small school, we’re everywhere," she said.

Since the closure was announced, alumnae have sprung into action, creating a “Save St. Basil Academy” Facebook page and beginning to share ideas about possible campaigns to keep the school’s doors open.

Staff writer Oona Goodin-Smith contributed to this article.