After 128 years of providing Catholic education to children in Random Lake, Our Lady of the Lakes elementary school shut its doors for good Wednesday.
Parish administrator Fr. Todd Budde announced the closure Nov. 13 in a letter to parents, citing declining enrollments and unspecified “serious concerns about how to continue to support a school with less and less students.”
The school ends the academic year and its history with 38 students from pre-school to sixth grade, including 29 in grades one through six, and seven teachers.
“I would love to continue spreading the Gospel as a teacher at any Catholic school, but I don’t know if that will ever happen,” said Ronda Goetsch, who taught at Our Lady of the Lakes for 33 years. “I’ve spent my entire teaching life doing this. I haven’t given up on the possibility of continuing somewhere else.”
Support for Catholic education continues
The school that has produced 22 valedictorians and salutatorians for Random Lake Public High School in the past 20 years closes amid promises by Our Lady of the Lakes Parish leadership to continue financially supporting students looking to continue their Catholic education.
“Closing the school had nothing to do with financial distress,” said Ed Ritger, a parish finance committee member for the past 35 years. “The parish is financially strong. As part of our financial commitment to Catholic education we have in our 2013-2014 parish budget a policy of financially supporting every Catholic school in the area where our kids are going to transfer.”
The parish will also continue to collect money to fund its tuition assistance program, which has a balance of $10,000. The parish also maintains an endowment fund to assist students in need.
Despite the promises of continued support for Catholic education, emotions on the cusp of the closing range from resignation of the inevitable and sadness that an important fiber of family and village life will be gone to bitterness by some over a perceived lack of input into the closure decision.
Six generations educated
Bill Miller lives just outside of Random Lake on the family homestead across State 144 from the now-demolished St. Mary School, the predecessor of Our Lady of the Lakes.
Miller, 79, sextant of the adjacent St. Mary’s Cemetery, is the third of six generations of Millers to benefit from a Catholic education in Random Lake.
“Two of my great-grandchildren attend Our Lake of the Lakes. I’m going to miss the school. It was closed without us having any input,” Miller said. “We’re going to lose a lot of Catholic families. We’ll never see them in church again. If the Archdiocese of Milwaukee thinks closing the school is promoting the Catholic faith, they are badly mistaken.”
Celebration marks 128 years of education
Following Mass on June 2 the parish formally celebrated 128 years of Catholic education in Random Lake with a gathering at the school.
The first Catholic school opened in 1854 in the Town of Sherman at St. Mary Church near the Miller family homestead.
“I’m researching whether my grandfather went there. He would have been the right age,” said Miller, whose great-grandfather homesteaded the land after emigrating from Luxemburg in 1848. “We’re proud of our heritage and the school.”
Following a fire in 1895 that destroyed the church, a new church, school and rectory were built in the Village of Random Lake. The school opened Sept. 1, 1895 with 33 students. The current school building was constructed in 1962. The name was changed to Our Lady of the Lakes in 1998 when four parishes were combined to form Our Lady of the Lakes Congregation.
Religious presence evident
The Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi taught at St. Mary School from 1916 until 1992. Teachers from the School Sisters of Notre Dame taught until 1997.
“I got the best education from the nuns,” said Goetsch. “They taught me first about being a teacher when I was young and attending the school, then as one of their peers when I began teaching in 1980. I was one of two lay teachers. The other three were from the School Sisters of Notre Dame.”
JoAnne Mueller, 71, also recalls having nuns as teachers when she attended St. Mary’s.
“The nuns were nice, but strict. If you were a trouble maker they knew how to handle it,” said Mueller, whose four children and several grandchildren attended Our Lady of the Lakes.
Mueller said the June 2 celebration of the school’s history “was a nice farewell, more sad than bitter.”
“I do feel somewhat bitter because of the lost legacy, but basically we have to accept it,” she said.
Closing expected, but still a shock
For Cory Davis, who attended Our Lake of the Lakes along with three sisters and 14 cousins and, over the years numerous aunts and uncles, the closing, although long expected, still came as a bit of a shock.
“We kept this school going a lot longer than people thought we were going to, which is a real positive, to say the least,” said Davis, whose son, Dylan, fourth grade student at Our Lady of the Lakes, will attend Port Catholic in Port Washington next year.
“Our 9-year-old son came to us and said, ‘Mom and Dad, I want to keep going to a Catholic school.’ He chose Port Catholic. We said OK,” said Davis, who works in Mequon and will make the 20-minute drive to take his son to school.
Davis said at least one other student is transferring to Port Catholic, two are going to St. John the Baptist in Plymouth, one to Oostburg Christian School and seven or eight to Rosemary, a Catholic school of about 60 students associated with Divine Savior Parish in Fredonia, about six miles east of Random Lake in Ozaukee County.
The remaining students are expected to transfer to public schools in Random Lake, Davis said.
Finding a new school for Our Lady of the Lake teachers may be more challenging, said Our Lady of the Lakes principal Rick Erickson, who described the teachers as “a fantastic group of ladies dedicated to Catholic education.”
He said the archdiocese indicated a willingness to place his teaching staff in new schools.
Superintendent praises parish efforts
Kathleen Cepelka, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, praised the actions by Our Lady of the Lakes Parish to financially support Catholic education.
“It’s a model and should be held up as an ideal for every parish,” she said.
Cepelka said the policies are completely in line with the archbishop’s vision that every parish has a responsibility for and commitment to Catholic education even if it doesn’t have a school building on the parish campus.
Contrary to the feelings of some in Random Lake, Cepelka said, the school was not targeted for closing by the diocese.
“It was a local decision,” Cepelka said. “These (closing schools) are not archdiocese decisions. Our vision is we want every school to be strong, viable and as affordable as possible. The diocese has no hard and fast guidelines. We work with pastors, administrators, trustees and parish councils to help them determine the viability of a school.”
If a school is not sustainable at the local level, Cepelka said, the archdiocese encourages movement of students to a stronger, more sustainable school.
“There is kind of an upward movement to provide Catholic education from a more regional approach,” Cepelka said.
Overall, Cepelka said, school enrollments within the archdiocese have stabilized in recent years, thanks in part to school choice.
She said a recent survey of school facilities in the archdiocese did not result in a list of schools to recommend for closure during consolidations, but will help local school committees “understand somewhat scientifically which site would be best suited to maintain a school, taking the emotion out of it.”
‘Sideline gossip’ not productive
Erickson said “sideline gossip” hurt the school.
“Standing along the sideline of a soccer or baseball game you hear people talking about things they, quote, ‘Know to be a fact,’ when the reality is nobody ever heard about it. From a parental perspective, if you’ve got a 3- or 4-year-old and you’re hearing rumors that ‘Boy, that school is going to close next year,’ do you want to put your child into the kindergarten class and have them yanked out after one year?”
Erickson said the Catholic footprint in southern Sheboygan County has disappeared.
“It doesn’t speak well for the future of our church if we don’t have a Catholic footprint,” he said.
The existing school building will be used for Catholic education classes in the parish, said Ritger.
“Religious education will continue in Random Lake. We are in the process of hiring a new director of religious education, so there are opportunities for the rebirth and strengthening of religious education here.”
For Davis, the decision to close Our Lady of the Lakes “wasn’t due to any particular thing.”
“I think everyone did as much as they could,” Davis said. “It’s not like our parish is walking away from Catholic education.”