By Mary Solberg | FaithLife
Erie’s Villa Maria Elementary School—a mainstay of Catholic education offered by the Sisters of St. Joseph since 1892—will close at the end of this academic year.
Sister Mary Herrmann, SSJ, president of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Northwestern Pennsylvania, publicly announced the closure at an Oct. 4 news conference at the community’s motherhouse in Erie. She and other members of her leadership team met the previous two days with members of the board of trustees, with parents and school personnel. Some expressed deep sadness and frustration at the passing of an era.
In explaining the decision to close a school so close to the hearts of generations of sister-educators, Sister Mary stated, “The Sisters of St. Joseph always try to respond to current needs. We give up a particular ministry when that need can be met by others.”
Giving up the ministry of elementary education was not made lightly by the aging religious congregation. But with the establishment of the new Erie Catholic School System, announced by the Diocese of Erie last spring, the sisters felt confident that students had strong options for Catholic education. A recent pastoral planning study by the diocese indicated that current demographics do not support keeping all Erie area Catholic elementary schools open in the foreseeable future.
Villa Elementary is a sponsored ministry of the Sisters of St. Joseph, not a diocesan school, but sisters have collaborated over the years with the diocese by staffing Villa and nearly 40 other elementary and secondary schools.
“This is a proactive response that reflects our belief that together we are stronger and can more effectively fulfill the Gospel mandate of preaching and teaching God’s word,” Sister Mary said.
Bishop Lawrence Persico lauded the Sisters of St. Joseph for their longtime commitment to Catholic education.
“One thing I admire most about women religious is their commitment to following wherever the Spirit leads them,” the bishop said. “When they see a need, they meet it. In our diocese, they have addressed needs in health care, in Catholic education and in social ministry, always filling the gaps. But they also have the courage to move on when those needs are met by others.”
The school’s 12-member board of trustees expressed dismay Oct. 3 when it first learned of the school closure and the sisters’ decision to replace the board with a nine-member governing board of sisters. All former board members have been invited to be part of a transition team being created this year.
In a letter to parents and other members of the school community, former board of trustees members stated, “We fully understand that there is little that we can do to make you feel better about the SSJ’s decision— most of us have children at the school ourselves and are experiencing the same kind of disorientation and worry as you.”
Mary Gibson, president of the newly created Erie Catholic School System, personally understands the impact of a school closure. Last year, as principal of Erie’s now-closed St. Peter Cathedral School, she had to help students and parents say good-bye to a school they loved.
At the invitation of the SSJs, Gibson was on-hand at the parent meeting this week, as well as at the news conference, to extend support and offer help to families and students planning for the future. Currently, the school’s enrollment stands at 431 in pre-school through eighth grade.
Gibson said there is more than enough room in all of the Catholic schools in the Erie area to accommodate students from Villa Elementary. She recommends that Villa Elementary students visit other schools and go over the pros and cons for their family situation.
“It’s a difficult time for parents,” Gibson said. “I would recommend that they be sympathetic and be open to their children’s concerns. Try to be as positive as possible about the process even though it’s tough, but especially because it’s tough.”
Damon Finazzo, principal of Villa Elementary, has met with students to confirm the closing. It’s better, he said, to all be “on the same page” and to come together during a difficult moment.
“We’re going to go one day at a time and we’re going to make every day awesome for our kids,” Finazzo said. “The kids are looking to us for direction. I just told them how awesome they are and how awesome we are. They were very receptive; they’re good kids.”
Change has been at the core of the Villa experience since the Sisters of St. Joseph first arrived in the Diocese of Erie to teach young women at St. Ann Academy in Corsica, Pa. In 1892, the SSJs established Villa Maria Academy for grades 1 through 12. In the late 1920s, the school became two entities: Villa Maria Elementary for grades 1 through 8, and Villa Maria Academy for grades 9 through 12.
The community founded Villa Maria College, which later merged with Gannon University in Erie. And in 2009, Villa Maria Academy successfully merged with Cathedral Prep, creating the Erie Catholic Preparatory School.