BIG BEND — She’s still emotional about the news she received last week.
Melinda Kalawa’s voice wavered as she talked about the way St. Joseph School in Big Bend has served her and her husband, Tom’s, three boys since their oldest was enrolled in 2005.
They never expected the email they received from Sue Shawver, the school’s principal, notifying them that the school would close at the end of the academic year. “Fr. (Richard Robinson, pastor of St. Joseph Parish) has scheduled a parent meeting on Thursday, Jan. 24 at 6:30 p.m. in the parish hall to share information and answer questions,” Shawver wrote.
“My husband and I were shocked and saddened and disappointed,” she told your Catholic Herald in a telephone interview. Shock, disappointment, anger and sadness spread through many households in the Big Bend area on Tuesday, Jan 22.
But their sadness turned to joy on Friday, Jan. 25 when Fr. Robinson announced during school Mass that morning that St. Joseph would continue its 60-year commitment to Catholic education.
“It was 48 hours of an emotional roller coaster ride,” said Melinda, who explained that Catholic education is the only option for their children in grades one, four and six at St. Joseph, a K4-8 school. The Kalawas were part of the estimated 200 people who attended an informational meeting in the school cafeteria with Fr. Robinson, superintendent of Catholic Schools Kathleen Cepelka, school and parish leaders and families last Thursday.
After receiving the email from the principal on Tuesday, Melinda called her parents, who had put her and her seven siblings through Holy Apostles School in New Berlin on one income.
“They know the rewards of having a Catholic community reinforce those values that they taught us and they also know the challenges and the commitments and the sacrifices that do need to be made, too, by families and so I talked to my dad and that’s when I really broke down and started to cry,” she said. “And he told me to get it together. He said ‘Keep it together, get some facts, we’ll get through this and we’ll figure it out,’” Melinda said.
Emails started circulating between families and teachers about the importance of the school and parish to their families and their journeys to educate and reinforce the values of their children, Melinda said.
A few dozen parents met for about two hours on Wednesday night to brainstorm what they could do to reverse the decision, and to prepare for the Thursday night meeting with parish leaders.
“I spent Thursday calling a lot of people within my school family and my parish family, asking them to join; whatever their opinion was, we need to go forward as a parish and if there was a hope that we could change this, we needed everyone’s support, and I think we got that,” she said.
Cepelka said what happened at St. Joseph isn’t typical.
“This was a unique situation in that Father was having this meeting and it really brought people together to express themselves,” she said, noting the decision to close a school is ultimately made by the priest and local leadership, though the archdiocese provides support, advice, counsel and resources.
Several factors went into Fr. Robinson’s decision to meet with the archdiocese about closing the school last fall, including a tight budget, decreased enrollment, from 247 in 2001 to 123 today, and the fact that salaries, already low for school personnel and parish employees, haven’t increased for the cost of living in the last four years.
Lyndsey Bohrer, 21, a 2006 graduate of St. Joseph, was among those who disagreed publicly at last week’s meeting.
Not only did she, her father and his seven siblings attend, but several of her cousins have.
“I feel that Catholic grade schools are so important and that St. Joe’s inspired me to follow that path that I’m following right now. …” said Bohrer, a junior studying theology for Catholic school ministry at Marquette University. “I also said that I thought that without the school, the parish would not survive the way that they thought it would because it’s a church community, the parish and school together, so one really cannot do well without the other.”
She attended the open house last weekend, which was on again with the news that the school was staying open, and left her name and contact information with teachers in case she could help in any way.
Cepelka said there was an enormous outpouring of support for the school from those in attendance, with no one opposed to the decision to keep it open.
Among those who attended the Thursday night meeting, according to Cepelka, were current and past students and their parents and grandparents, current and former trustees, parish council members, school committee members and all of the St. Joseph teachers.
“It was a very passionate and faith-based experienced,” she said. “It was a moving testimonial to the importance of Catholic education to that community.”
The school will stay open, but she said they have work to do, including developing strategies for marketing, programming and finances.
Fr. Robinson said another meeting is planned for Thursday, Jan. 31, so parents can begin to work with the guidance of the parish leadership to create goals, tasks and a timeline, according to Fr. Robinson.
He was delighted the meeting was so positive.
“It was shock, it was surprise; they wanted to know if the decision could be rescinded and it was not a viscious attacking kind of a thing blaming somebody, it was a willingness to, OK, if this is possible to rescind this, then how can we help,” he said. “And we continued then with Catholic Schools Week and it’s just heroic how so many parents and students and faculties and volunteers came forward on short notice then to put this all back together again and make it a real celebration and just a complete turnaround and a new vitality.”
But he’s aware of the work ahead and said he shared that at the weekend Masses.
“The easy decision was to keep the school open; the harder decision now is to work together to continue to make it viable for years and years to come.”
Excitement filled the school halls during the open house, and it fills the Kalawa house, too. Melinda, like Fr. Robinson, said keeping the school open is just the beginning.
“I mean, we got the school open, and now the work begins,” she said. “I think looking back and reflecting on all of this, I think we get so busy in our life and I think we can blame the economy, we can blame whatever … but at the end of the day, we all have our mission – I think we lost sight of that mission for a moment.”
She hopes that what happened at St. Joseph rejuvenates Catholics throughout southeastern Wisconsin.
“I am just so proud of this parish for believing and coming together to understand and ultimately change a decision so that not only my children but hopefully children for a very long time will continue to get a Catholic education at St. Joseph’s.” she said. “I am just very proud, very, very proud, to be a part of this. It was pretty amazing.”