Just one month after saying that Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Regional School in Barrington would reopen next year, the Diocese of Camden announced yesterday that it was closing the school for good.
Bishop Joseph Galante explained in a letter that the school - in operation for just one year - had suffered an enrollment decline so steep that five pastors whose parishes sent children to Sacred Heart had urged him to close it.
When it opened in September, the school had 152 pupils, well below the 200 the diocese regards as viable. The number was down to 97 on May 17, when the diocese assured parents the school would reopen in the fall.
But after the school lost 18 more pupils in four weeks, Galante wrote, he decided to close Sacred Heart "for the well-being of our families and students."
Andrew Walton, spokesman for the diocese, said Galante recognized that the announcement was upsetting but felt that "it would have been far worse for everybody" if the school resumed operations in the fall, only to shut down in the middle of a term.
Sacred Heart was created through the merger of St. Francis de Sales Regional School in Barrington and Annunciation Regional School in Bellmawr.
Yesterday, janitor John Crawford, 55, who graduated from the school when it was St. Francis de Sales parochial school, lugged to his truck a three-foot madonna-and-child statue that had been there when he was a boy.
"It's over," he explained as he prepared to deliver the statue to the convent of the Daughters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, the order of nuns who once taught there.
The school's 30 employees, including 20 teachers, will lose their jobs, according to principal Kathleen Fields.
"We would've been open for next year," she said. "But people started dropping out."
Although tuition had increased by a few hundred dollars in the last year, Fields said, financial assistance was always available to those who needed it.
"People committed to Catholic education will find a school," she said.
Tuition was $3,100 this year and was scheduled to rise to $3,500 for the 2009-10 school year.
Joann Gallo, a kindergarten and art teacher, said that the diocese could have done more to increase enrollment, and that it had been preparing to raise tuition in a bad economy.
"We've worked so hard to make this a wonderful year," she said. "It seems it's all been for nothing."
After the merger with Annunciation, many of the faculty thought their jobs were safe. "They kept saying they wouldn't close us down," she said. "Then they did all this."
Denise Lundholm, a former student and 11-year math teacher, said she was disappointed by the closing but was grateful that the school's final eighth-grade class was spared the news for a few days.
"I'm glad we weren't told before graduation," she said. "It would've taken that moment away from them."
Her daughter Monica, who was a seventh grader at the school, said she had hoped to finish her last year at Sacred Heart.
"I was with the same friends from preschool," she said. "It's not going to be the same anywhere else."
John Waszewski, 49, drove by when he heard his old school was being shut down.
"I'm so aggravated at what [Galante] is doing," he said. "He's closing down all the really good schools and churches, and it's all a money thing."
Patrick Azzari, a sixth grader, said the news came too late for him to transfer to St. Rose of Lima in Haddon Heights, where he has many friends.
"It wasn't explained truthfully to us," he said. "They told us too late to get into another Catholic school."
Walton acknowledged that grades were full in some nearby parish schools, but noted there were eight other Catholic grammar schools within a five-mile radius of Sacred Heart.
He said that families that switched their children to another diocesan school would be given a $1,000 tuition voucher for each student, and that the new school would honor any tuition-assistance agreement or registration payment made at Sacred Heart.
Crawford, the longtime janitor, said he would be working every day this summer to remove furniture and clean the empty classrooms.
"When I left this school [as a teenager], I said, 'I'm never coming back,' " he recalled, but it "grows on you. This started out as a three-week job and I've been here ever since."