The new school, located at St. Bernard Parish, will serve the two parishes, located about a mile apart; its creation was subject to the approval of both parishes’ councils and the archdiocese. Facilities at St. Pius X will be used for family activities, such as “skate nights,” and athletics.
The formation of the new school, announced Dec. 16, was preceded by six months of planning, called Project Embrace, during which parents and parish leaders charted the future.
St. Pius’ enrollment is 105 pupils, while St. Bernard has 85. At one time or another, each school enrolled several hundred students. Figures provided by the parishes indicate a combined total of 338 students attended the schools in 2003-04 and that the number has declined annually since. Each parish’s current classroom building could accommodate 250-300 pupils, in the estimation of Dean Weyer, who serves both parishes as director of administrative services.
Weyer, who responded by e-mail to a reporter’s questions and subsequently was interviewed at St. Bernard several weeks ago prior to the announcement of the merger, said that “continuing high quality Catholic elementary school education at numbers around 100 is not a financially viable alternative for either parish.” He added that both congregations “could continue individually if staffing adjustments were made. The feeling, though, is that this would impact the quality…. We want to provide the best quality education that we can.”
Weyer said no new school construction is anticipated. Both classroom buildings were constructed 50-60 years ago and are in good condition, he said. Weyer noted that a $3 million St. Bernard Parish plant update – which included construction of a gymnasium – took place in 2000.
Demographic data show the overall population, as well as the school-age population, remaining stable within a two-mile radius of the mid-point of the two parishes at approximately North 76th Street and West North Avenue, said Weyer. Each parish numbers about 600-625 families, he said – a count that has been consistent for the last five years.
“Stewardship is stable,” he said, while also pointing out that costs do go up. “There have been start-stop conversations (about a new school) among Wauwatosa parishes for over 10 years.”
The pastors of the five Wauwatosa congregations (Christ King, St. Joseph and St. Jude the Apostle, in addition to St. Bernard and St. Pius) “were invited to take part in exploratory discussions.” Although Christ King joined fellow cluster parishes St. Bernard and St. Pius “in some meetings early in the process,” Christ King opted to continue running its elementary school independently.
For St. Bernard and St. Pius, collaboration is not new. Their schools have shared teachers and, as of this year, the parishes have a combined athletic program. The congregations also share a director of religious education, in addition to the director of administrative services, and – along with Christ King – a high school ministry program.
The proposed joint school may rank as the biggest of St. Bernard/St. Pius undertakings, but it should not be regarded as a preliminary step to consolidation of the parishes, according to Weyer.
“There’s no plan” to merge St. Bernard and St. Pius, he said. “There are no discussions in this regard. Each parish will continue on as a separate parish.” (Each has its own pastor: Fr. Peter Drenzek at St. Bernard and Salvatorian Fr. Robert Marsicek at St. Pius.)
“There is obviously some nervousness in the (parish) communities about what is going on,” Weyer said. Parish personnel have been “making every attempt to be as open and transparent as possible” with regard to Project Embrace. Information has been conveyed at meetings and through Web sites, church bulletins and Mass announcements. Parishioners’ input has been solicited through an online survey. There have been planning retreats and open houses targeted to school parents.
More than 40 entries were submitted in a contest to select the name of the new school, said Weyer, explaining that several people submitted the name, Wauwatosa Catholic. School families, students and parishioners had the opportunitiy to vote on the top selections and the final six selections were sent to Archbishop Listecki as suggestions. The archbishop could have chosen any of the six or could have come up with a name of his own, said Weyer, explaining that in selecting Wauwatosa Catholic, he selected the name that was most popular among parishioners and school families.
A “futuring team,” involving St. Bernard and St. Pius staff members and parishioners, is functioning.
A former Milwaukee archdiocesan official has assisted the parishes with Project Embrace.
“We contracted with consultant Maureen Gallagher of the Reid Group to lead us through this initial phase of the process. Maureen … has expertise in this area both here in the archdiocese and in other parts of the country.” Weyer said.
The initial phase, he added, was to culminate in the submission of a new school plan for Archbishop Listecki’s approval. Whether the parishes would engage a consultant’s services beyond that point has not been decided, according to Weyer.
The archbishop’s approval generates the new school’s first job posting – for an administrator, or principal.
“As the existing schools will no longer exist, all staff are ‘non-renewed’ and will have to apply for a position in the new school,” he explained.
Weyer told of “an optimistic spirit” among planning retreat participants. He noted that “the people involved in the committee work have been open to change and are embracing the process” and that he personally has come to regard Project Embrace as an exciting occurrence.
Has Weyer heard much negative commentary about the project from St. Bernard and St. Pius parishioners?
“Not at all,” he insisted.