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Diocese to close St. Mary Academy

| Thursday, May 10, 2012, 5:37 p.m.

St. Mary Academy in Freeport will close at the end of the academic year because of declining enrollment, school officials said.

It is the second school in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Greensburg this month to announce plans to shut down because of a drop in the number of projected students.

The decision to close the Armstrong County school was a difficult one, said the Rev. Thomas A. Federline, pastor of St. Mary's Parish. Smaller families and fewer Catholics participating are the realities of today, he said in announcing the decision.

"It's so sad. They've had a school in this parish since 1869," he said Wednesday. The school building was built in 1923, and an addition was completed in 1961.

Despite aggressive promotion and enrollment activities, student enrollment at St. Mary Academy has decreased sharply in the past two years, while costs continued to rise.

Seventy-one students in grades K-6 were enrolled for the new school year. Parish planners had based the school's budget on 80 students, Federline said.

The parish serves 1,722 people in 674 households.

A lot of parishioners told Federline that they expected the school to close.

"We could see this coming," he said.

The parish finance and pastoral councils unanimously recommended to Bishop Lawrence E. Brandt that the school be closed. Brandt approved the closing last week, the same time he approved the closing of St. Edward School in Herminie.

"As is true with any death, the closure of your school brings sadness to you and your people, and it is appropriate to grieve. Be assured that I grieve with you and am also deeply saddened," Brandt said in a letter to Federline.

He cited the "extraordinary dedication and service" of the pastoral and finance councils to save the school.

Tuition this year was $3,260, compared to $3,775 next year.

A new tuition model that couples tuition hikes based on actual costs with financial aid based on need is helping to fuel a drop in the student census in schools throughout the diocese, officials said.

"Our schools were struggling prior to implementation of the new tuition model. Some of the schools that were struggling are the ones that are closing," said Angela Burrows, executive director of infomedia services.

"These schools have been 'The Little Engine that Could,'" Burrows said, alluding to the children's book by Watty Piper. "But they just can't do it anymore."

Tuition is based on enrollment, and parents are notified of their tuition costs in advance of the start of school. If enrollment drops, the school's costs go up, but tuition stays the same, adding to the debt of the school, Burrows said.

Since 1980, the Greensburg diocese has closed 27 elementary schools. During the same period, the number of Catholic schools in the United States dropped from 8,100 to 6,785.

Many alumni of St. Mary Academy continue to live and work in the parish. Among them are the Rev. Dom DeBlasio, a retired priest from the Diocese of Pittsburgh who lives in a small house behind the church. He'll be 91 on Aug. 1. The Rev. Gino Rivi is a retired military chaplain.

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