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Sorrow pervades St. Bernadette community over school’s closing

St. Bernadette Catholic Academy Evergreen Park has been targeted for closure by Archdiocese Chicago.  | SUSAN DEMAR LAFFERTY/Sun-times media

St. Bernadette Catholic Academy in Evergreen Park has been targeted for closure by the Archdiocese of Chicago. | SUSAN DEMAR LAFFERTY/Sun-times media

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Updated: February 13, 2014 6:43AM



Parents of St. Bernadette Catholic Academy in Evergreen Park said they were “devastated,” “disappointed” and “very sad” to learn that their parish school would close at the end of this school year.

St. Bernadette, 9311 Francisco Ave., and St. Christopher School in Midlothian are among at least six schools that will close, the Chicago Archdiocese announced Thursday.

Sister Mary Paul McCaughey, superintendent of schools for the archdiocese, met with St. Bernadette parents Friday night at the school, saying the decision was “enrollment-driven” because the school has only 98 students. She said the archdiocese targeted for closing schools with fewer than 225 students.

The parish school opened in August 1949 with 365 pupils, and enrollment grew to 1,257 by 1965, according to the St. Bernadette website. It said the school was one of the first in the archdiocese to open a preschool.

“It’s like going through a death. I have a knot in my stomach,” St. Bernadette Principal Arlene Baumann told parents in a voice choked with emotion. “I’m sorry.”

She vowed to help parents find a place for their children that will be as “comfortable” as St. Bernadette.

Parents, many still reeling from the news of the closing, were not sure where their children would go to school next year.

Charles Holley, of Chicago, said he and his wife visited several schools before selecting St. Bernadette four years ago when his son, Hunter, was in kindergarten.

“Our biggest concerns are diversity and class size. That is the strength of St. Bernadette’s,” he said. “We are worried about our kids being accepted in other schools. Now, we have to start that process all over again.”

Not all parents were shocked by the news, saying they knew there were financial issues with the school for years.

“They’ve been talking about it (closing) for years,” said John Newark, whose adult children attended St. Bernadette and whose youngest son is enrolled here. “We have a lot of history here. Now, it’s back to the drawing board.”

“The only thing we can do is keep praying and get through the next five months,” Sandra Chambers said. “I will go home and prepare my 9-year-old son. I still want him to connect with his friends. This is more than just a school. It’s a community.”

The Rev. Benedykt Pazdan, St. Bernadette’s pastor, stressed that the school is closing but the parish is not.

“This is really heartbreaking and will affect the way the parish operates and the community,” he said. “We are people of hope. This is our Good Friday, but Easter is coming.”

McCaughey said families will be offered a $1,000 tuition discount if they choose to continue at another Catholic school.

“I know that is a pathetic exchange for the heartbreak you are experiencing,” she told the parents.

Evergreen Park Mayor James Sexton said he will “fight to keep open” St. Bernadette Academy, which has been a “very valuable part of our community for many years. So many people have graduated from that school.”

In Midlothian, the Rev. Krzysztof Paluch, pastor at St. Christopher, 14611 Keeler Ave., said he got the message Thursday night that his school would close. St. Christopher has 215 students, he said.

“When I came here a few months ago, I knew it was in financial trouble,” he said.

The archdiocese has been supporting the school financially for three years, he said, adding that he signed a contract with the archdiocese for another three years of support before it was decided that the support could not continue.

St. Christopher School opened in 1924 with 60 students and was expanded over the years to accommodate a growing enrollment.

Paluch said the parish will have meetings to determine if it can raise enough funds to keep the school open.

“We’ve had fundraisers in the past and will have more. We will have to figure out how to get some big money,” he said. “I look forward to the future with hope.”

In its announcement Thursday, the archdiocese said six schools would be closed for failing to meet its “criteria for sustainability and growth potential,” and more could be added later this month.

“The families of the 775 children affected by the closures will be encouraged to transfer their children to nearby Catholic schools and offered tuition discounts to offset any inconvenience,” the statement said.

McCaughey said the archdiocese needed to reduce its education budget by $10 million. Last year, a funding deficit forced the closing of five Catholic schools.

Contributing: Sun-Times Media, AP



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