St. Mary’s School in Westville to close this spring

WESTVILLE — “With a heavy heart,” the pastor of St. Mary’s Parish in Westville has announced that the parish’s Catholic grade school will close at the conclusion of the current academic year.

“St. Mary’s Grade School will be closed at the end of May 2010 after 100 years of service to the parishioners and people of Westville and the county of Vermilion in Illinois,” Father Timothy Sauppe wrote in a letter to parishioners dated Feb. 11.

The school’s 84 students in pre-kindergarten through grade 8 are being encouraged to continue their Catholic education at schools in Danville, just a few miles to the north.

While the news did not come as a surprise to most members of St. Mary’s — Father Sauppe had outlined the school’s financial problems shortly after becoming pastor in mid-2008 — the hearts of school supporters are “heavy” as well, the pastor told The Catholic Post on Wednesday.

“We’re fundraising to beat the band, but it’s not enough,” he said after celebrating Mass on Ash Wednesday with students, faculty and staff. A two-month fundraising campaign prior to this school year raised $65,000 and eight fundraising events were added, but the school will still experience a shortfall of about $50,000 this year.

The decision to close, which has been confirmed by Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, CSC, was made by Father Sauppe after consultation with the parish finance council, the Foundation of St. Mary’s Parish, and Principal David Bibb. The school staff was informed last Friday, and at Masses over the weekend Father Sauppe read a letter he had sent to Bishop Jenky explaining the decision.

In a news release, Bishop Jenky said he realized how difficult the closing would be for a parish community “that had demonstrated a long and firm commitment to Catholic education.” St. Mary’s School was established in 1903, was closed in the Depression-era of the 1930s, and reopened in the late 1930s.

The bishop also expressed his deep gratitude to the parish for its dedication to the school over the years.

Among the religious communities to provide staffing in the early years of St. Mary’s School were Sisters of the Holy Cross from Notre Dame, Ind., and Franciscan Sisters from Milwaukee. The present school building was built in 1960, and its peak enrollment was 369 students in the 1966-1967 school year.

“It was a difficult decision that had to be made,” said Bibb, who is in his second year as principal.

“We’re going to keep a positive attitude through the rest of the year and finish in a celebratory way,” he told The Catholic Post. Students are understandably sad, “but fortunate for us we have other Catholic schools close enough to us.”

Danville’s Catholic schools are also undergoing an historic restructuring. In early December, a plan was announced to relocate and unite Holy Family and St. Paul grade schools with Schlarman High School at the current Schlarman campus beginning with the 2011-2012 school year. The restructured school, offering Catholic education from pre-Kindergarten through grade 12, will be known as Schlarman Academy.

The diocesan Office of Catholic Schools will assist current faculty at St. Mary’s in becoming part of the teacher applicant pool for the diocese.

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