Salice Thongsy, Amanda Rice, Emily Arneson and Angelia Balsamo look at a book just before leaving St. Catherine of Alexandria School, Milwaukee, June 5. The school has closed and merged with the schools at St. Bernadette and Our Lady of Good Hope to form Northwest Catholic School. (Catholic Herald photo by Juan C. Medina)

“Now, as many of you know, this school of St. Catherine is now being merged with Northwest (Catholic) School,” assisting priest Fr. Richard Mirsberger said during his homily. “I know this is not easy for some people to accept, but we also know that the school has not stopped.

“Today is a celebration. Thank you for supporting the school,” he added.

St. Catherine parishioners and school alumni gathered after the Mass for a picnic in the gym. The school’s halls were decorated with photos and art projects from years past.

Stephan Gross, who graduated from eighth grade in 1987, has a lot of memories from his eight years at the school.

“Basketball, soccer, teachers, friends,” Gross counted. “(It was all) kind of like family, because you moved all through those years with the same group of kids. And because the school was small enough even when I was here, it didn’t change too much. Now days, a lot of classrooms have about four or five different kindergartens and first grades; for (St. Catherine) you maybe had two sixth grades, but for the most part you had one class and you spent a lot of time together.”

He added that the religious training he received at St. Catherine influenced his life.

“We would go to church during the week and we had our religious education classes,” he said, describing how that helped educate students spiritually. “Having that be the foundation from moving on to the next level and grade – and even as you get older, too, I think that really helped quite a bit.”

The decision to merge St. Catherine with Our Lady of Good Hope and St. Bernadette schools began 30 years ago, according to Debbie Hintz, parish director for St. Catherine for the past three years.

“More recently, there was a discussion right before (Milwaukee Parental Choice Program) came into play, and then when choice happened, then the parish had decided that we could probably make a go of this. But, enrollment has been down and parish finances have declined also. We decided last year that we really needed to consider this more seriously,” she said.

Because St. Catherine had the smallest of the three buildings, it was the one to close while the other two would be renamed as east and west campuses. The west campus will be located at St. Bernadette, 8200 W. Denver Ave., and the east campus at Our Lady of Good Hope, 7152 N. 41st St.

According to Hintz, busing will still be available. Those living west of 76th Street will attend the west campus, and those living east of 76th Street will attend the east campus. Families that provide their own transportation may choose to send their children to either campus.

Hintz and school officials hired a consultant – a wise choice according to her – to lead them through the merging process.

“It’s gone really smoothly,” Hintz said about the process. “I’m really proud of that, that three parishes have worked together very well, and parishioners have been very accepting of the decision. Here at St. Catherine, we had more to lose than (St. Bernadette and Our Lady of Good Hope), but our parishioners really understood. There hasn’t been any anger here, at least none that I heard. I mean, there are people who are disappointed but they understood that really, the decision needed to be made.”

Enrollment at St. Catherine School was 120 K4 through eighth-grade students this year, with 60 percent enrolled through the choice program. The choice program began in the 1990-91 school year to provide an opportunity for students whose parents may not be able to afford private sectarian and nonsectarian schools located in the city of Milwaukee. According to St. Catherine principal Linda Kuhn, Northwest Catholic will continue to participate in the choice program. Those not enrolled in the program will pay the parish member tuition of $2,100 per year or $2,500 for non-parish members. For those coming from St. Catherine School, that is a $30-$50 increase.

All staff from the three schools had non-renewable contracts, so everyone had to apply for positions at Northwest Catholic, according to Kuhn.

“Our staff for Northwest Catholic is made up of teachers from all three schools and we are doing outside hiring, too,” said Kuhn, who will teach at Northwest Catholic.

Although registration is expected to increase during the summer, the west campus is already at 230 students, a significant jump from St. Bernadette’s yearly average of 170.

According to Kuhn, parents, parishioners and school staff are sad that the school has closed, but supportive nonetheless.

“This process has been difficult, but the people from the three parishes who have worked on this have just been tremendous. They have worked together; they want to do what is best for the children,” she added. “They have really been amazing.”

Judy Beattie graduated from the school in 1956, and remembers plenty from her school days, including the sense of belonging.

“It was a community, when they talk about developing a community, that’s what that was. Our whole life was centered around the church and family. (It) was very different than what it is today,” she laughed.

The parish has yet to finalize plans for the soon-to-be empty school building, but after a daylong process in which parents and school officials came together to discuss the merger, a consensus was reached.

“One of the things that surfaced was to have a community education center at the site that would not house the school,” Hintz said about the meeting, held at a time when it wasn’t known which school would close. “That’s not yet defined. It’s on the backburner just because we needed to get the school details taken care of before anything else. But all three parishes have committed to being part of developing what we are calling a community education center, hoping that we can serve the needs of the people in the area, in whatever way that turns out to be.”

The school gym and a few other classrooms will continue to be utilized by the parish.

Rosemary Yenter from Mequon graduated in 1942, and made a point of attending the parish picnic before the school closed.

“I was the oldest of eight children and we all went to school here,” she explained. “I think (Catholic education) established my Christian principles. A lot of the prayers I remember praying are coming back now. For a long time, they didn’t pray or sing the songs; now they’re starting back again and they’re coming back in Latin,” Yenter explained. She also remembers attending St. Catherine’s three-room schoolhouse before the renovation, and the nuns making hot cocoa on the first Friday of the month.