The Diocese of Camden confirmed Thursday that it planned to close St. Mary School in Gloucester City at the end of this school year, but members of the school community said they would not give up without a fight.
"We are not ready to throw the towel in," school board president James Devereaux said. "We think St. Mary's can remain a viable institution, just given the time."
Devereaux said members of the school community had been meeting with the diocese, trying to deal with declining enrollment and a financial shortfall. Given that, he said, many feel it unfair that they were not kept informed about what the diocese was considering.
"It was not handled in the best manner," he said.
In a statement posted Thursday on St. Mary's website, Bishop Joseph A. Galante said the diocese had been working with the school to help it meet its financial challenges, including providing loans. In three years, he said, enrollment has shrunk from 194 to 183 now, with 155 projected for next year. Despite fund-raising and parish support, he said, the school is projected to have a $150,000 shortfall.
The diocese is in the midst of an ambitious restructuring of its parishes, driven in part by shrinking enrollment at Catholic schools. The news of the closing is especially disappointing to parishioners because St. Mary already was drawing students from schools that had been shuttered elsewhere.
Devereaux said the diocese's decision made him question the wisdom of the restructuring, because he said those who joined St. Mary had difficulties meeting their financial obligations.
In his letter to parents, Galante acknowledged the community's disappointment.
"This decision should not diminish the pride the community has had in the school for its academic excellence, its strong sense of community, or its success fostering moral values in our children," he wrote. "Nor should it diminish our future commitment to Catholic school education for the children of our parishes."
He said the decision to close the school followed a meeting earlier this week with the pastors of St. Mary's parish and Emmaus Catholic and St. Joachim, two parishes formed in mergers that send their children to St. Mary's.
Galante also said the diocese would help parents find another nearby Catholic school and would provide a $1,000 voucher for each student that could be applied to tuition. Teachers will receive help in getting jobs elsewhere, and severance packages will offered to those who cannot find employment.
St. Mary's pastor, Msgr. James Curran, referred a call seeking comment to the diocese.
Devereaux said the school community was actively working on strategies for survival.