When students left St. Mary School in West Bend on June 2, the doors closed for the final time.
Opened 160 years ago, the school had been the longest continually operating Catholic school in the state, and the third oldest in the nation, according to Jenny Trimberger, the school’s principal for the past two years.
“The loss of any school site is difficult for us because of the history, the generations of students and clearly their families that are formed and educated in our Catholic schools,” said Kathleen Cepelka, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. “But in a very unique way, we are impacted by this, because this little school was founded to serve the needs of largely German immigrants. There are very deep roots, specifically because it was farmland, and symbolically that are affected by this closure.”
Because of declining enrollment and pressing budget issues, the parish made the decision last fall to close the school at the end of the school year. During its last academic year, 74 students were enrolled in K3 through eighth grade.
Over the past 20 years, as the school experienced declining enrollment, there had been talk of closing it.
“It seems like for 20 years or so St. Mary’s has been closing. It has always been in the background. People have really clawed and scratched and did what they could to keep the school going,” Trimberger said.
Decision made last fall
Still, when the decision was finally made last fall, it was difficult for families to process.
“After a while, you just don’t think it’s ever going to happen because they have been threatening for years that it was going to close. So when it finally does happen, there is a lot of shock,” said Fr. Nathan Reesman, shared pastor of St. Mary and St. Frances Cabrini parishes, West Bend.
Fr. Reesman and parish pastoral council members met with parish and school families last fall to inform them of the decision and to give them time to adjust to the news.
“There is a type of grieving that takes place. It is like you are losing a member of your family,” Fr. Reesman said.
“Just looking at the history and knowing how long it’s been around, and thinking about the thousands of kiddos who have walked these halls, is just sometimes overwhelming, especially when I am walking down them now,” said Trimberger, who will become principal at St. Kilian School, Hartford, July 1. “And then I think it is such a tight knit, close community. It was a great introduction to administration for me working with such a dedicated staff and getting to know every one of my students. It was a great school, someplace that I was happy to have my own children at.”
School originally called Barton School
St. Mary School dates to 1856, when Fr. Caspar Rehrl, with the assistance of the Sisters of St. Agnes, began Barton School. The school was associated with St. Mary Immaculate Conception Parish, located near West Bend in the Town of Barton.
At that point, Immaculate Conception Church had not yet been built.
However, the church building was soon constructed, and the building that became known as St. Mary School was built in 1876.
In the early years, the school and parish saw a lot of growth. By the 1940s and 1950s, two grades were combined in each classroom, and the school housed close to 400 students, Trimberger said.
“With the baby boom generation, we had hundreds of students, which floors me because I look at the classrooms, and wonder how that is possible,” Trimberger said.
In 1958, an addition was built onto the school to accommodate the large number of students.
The school’s longevity was a big factor in keeping it open in recent years, Fr. Reesman said.
“The parish community really gave their heart and soul to support it for a long time,” he said. “I really think there is nothing that anyone else could have done that they hadn’t already done to push it all the way to this point to keep it going.”
Last summer, the pastoral council spent a long time looking at options and realized the school couldn’t make it financially.
“We had reached a point where if we were going to go much further, we were going to be tapping into parish reserves. We were in kind of a critical financial red zone,” Fr. Reesman said.
Parish considered options, including merging
The parish considered merging its school with neighboring Catholic schools.
“Given the parish and the landscape of West Bend, the partnership and merging scenario just wasn’t going to work for a while yet,” Fr. Reesman said. “So in the end, the parish had a couple really long conversations and pretty intense meetings, looking at all the data we collected.”
Ultimately, the parish decided to create a tuition partnership with neighboring Catholic schools.
Many of the families are taking advantage of the tuition program. As of last week, 26 students will attend Holy Trinity School, Kewaskum this fall; 11 will go to St. Frances Cabrini, West Bend; one will attend Holy Angels, West Bend; 21 had not yet decided which school they would attend; and the rest will attend public schools, Trimberger said.
For families that had a student at St. Mary as of Jan. 1, 2016, the parish will pay about 20 percent of tuition reimbursement every year that student or any sibling attends an archdiocesan accredited Catholic grade school.
Depending on parish resources, the amount may vary each year, but it will be pegged around the 20 percent range, Fr. Reesman said.
In addition, any new families that join St. Mary Parish will receive that same tuition reimbursement.
“The parish is still very dedicated to Catholic education,” Fr. Reesman said.
Looking toward the future
Comprised of about 900 families, St. Mary Parish remains a vibrant community, Fr. Reesman said. The parish is looking at how it should fund its other ministries.
“The reality is that for many years the parish had been running on a very bare bones budget,” he said.
The parish is planning to make some building repairs it has delayed making.
The lower areas in the school building are being remodeled and painted.
They will be used for the area homeless shelter program, as well as mission outreaches and the parish’s social justice ministry.
The parish will also work on building up its religious education program, which is held two evenings a week and serves about 120 students.
“We are working on things as far as neighborhood outreach and parish activities that we had been talking about and kind of dreaming about and putting in place,” Fr. Reesman said.
Still, the school will always remain part of St. Mary’s identity.
“At St. Mary’s, we will always be very proud of our school. It was a real labor of love from our community families, and nothing ever changes that,” Fr. Reesman said.