Parents of students received word over the weekend that the oldest Catholic school in the Rockville Diocese and the only Catholic grade school east of Southampton will close its doors at the end of the school year.
"I have prayed that I would never have to write this letter. As you know, our school has been struggling," said the Rev. Michael J. Rieder, pastor of in Montauk, who is the executive pastor on the school board. Enrollment has fallen 20 percent, and the school is nearing $500,000 in debt, according to reports.
Reider said in the letter dated Friday that after a year of working with the Diocesan education and finance offices, the school asked parents to make a commitment to send their children — 102 in kindergarten through eighth grade — to the Sag Harbor school for 2011-12. Sister Joanne Callahan had asked parents in a meeting to make the commitments, including to help with the bleak financial situation, by May 2.
The deadline was extended a few days, but on May 4, when Callahan and Bishop Peter Libaci, the former pastor of St. Therese, met to assess the situation, only 44 students were registered. Nine more had been registered for nursery and pre-kindergarten classes.
"It is a sad reality that we cannot run our school with these numbers. This is not just a financial reality but also an academic one," Reider said. "Five of the grades have three or fewer students enrolled for the coming year. This would not make a healthy learning environment. We have no choice but to close our school at the end of this academic year."
Bishop William Murphy also said in a letter to Reider on Friday that the pastors supporting Stella Maris recommended the school close in June.
"As we are in the process of accepting a strategic plan for elementary schools in the Diocese in September; I am sorry that this has happened and wished that the parents had chosen to stay at Stella Maris," Murphy wrote. "It was my hope that this would have given us time to look at the possibilities for the future of Catholic education in the East End of Long Island including Stella Maris. While this will not be possible, we will continue to look at the future of Catholic education in the East End of Long Island as part of our strategic plan."
The Religious Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Mary founded St. Andrew Parish School, now Stella Maris, in 1877.
Jane Peters, the head of school, sent the parents the letters. "During the next few challenging weeks, please know that the children will continue to be provided with the best educational experience possible, and that classroom routines, school events, and curriculum plans will remain the same," she said.
Reider said he was saddened by the division in the school community that has arisen during the discussions of the school's futures. "I understand anger and frustration on the part of parents as we began to face the realities affecting your children," he said. "However, lashing out at brothers and sisters in need, as has happened here recently, does not fit into the picture of who we are as Christians in a Catholic School. I pray that this community can now move toward healing and reconciliation."