WINSLOW — St. John Catholic School in Winslow will close at the end of the current school year, following prolonged financial struggles to keep the 92-year-old institution afloat, officials said.

Parents were informed of the decision in a letter that reached mailboxes Thursday and is dated Monday. The Catholic school, located at 15 South Garand St., currently enrolls 34 students in Kindergarten through sixth grade, according to Mary Hammond, a volunteer with the school and parent of a former student. The school also houses around 30 children in pre-k and pre-school programs.

The figure is less than a tenth of the school’s 1960 enrollment, which was approximately 350 students, according to historic records.

“The sad truth is that rising costs, a decline in school-aged children in the Waterville/Winslow area, and an increased demand for financial assistance made it unfeasible to keep the school open,” Superintendent of Maine Catholic Schools Marianne Pelletier wrote in a news release. “As heartbreaking as this is for school families and alumni, we are grateful for the opportunity the diocese had in providing a quality education to generations of students. We also look forward to exploring new and creative ways to help children in the area cultivate their faith.”

The closure of St. John Catholic School is the latest sign of a decline in the area’s Catholic population, following the consolidation of area churches under the Corpus Christi parish and the shutting down of branches in Oakland, Fairfield and Vassalboro in recent years. The Corpus Christi parish currently includes Notre Dame Church in Waterville, Sacred Heart Church in Waterville, St. John the Baptist Church in Winslow and St. Helena Church in Belgrade Lakes.

The Rev. Daniel Baillargeon, pastor of the Corpus Christi parish, could not be immediately reached for comment Friday.

In the Monday letter to parents, Baillargeon said that school officials “will work with families to help with the transition to new schools, and I will meet with any family seeking financial assistance toward tuition at a Catholic School.”

Remaining Catholic schools in the area include Waterville’s Mount Merici Academy and St. Michael School in Augusta. The state’s eight others are farther away, including St. Dominic Academy with campuses in Lewiston and Auburn, All Saints Catholic School in Bangor, St. John Catholic School in Brunswick, St. Brigid School and Cheverus High School in Portland, Holy Cross Catholic School in South Portland, St. James Catholic School in Biddeford, and St. Thomas Catholic School in Sanford.

Parents and community members said that while they did not feel blindsided by Thursday’s announcement, it is difficult to know the school will cease to enroll another set of students in the fall.

“We all saw it coming, but at the same time, it’s scary,” said Bill Watkin, who has three sons, ages 6, 7 and 10, enrolled at St. John.

Parents arrive Friday to pick up students after classes end at St. John Catholic School in Winslow. Morning Sentinel file photo

Hammond, whose son, Ethan, attended St. John from 2004-2013, agreed. She drove to Winslow from Albion every day so that her son could receive a St. John education.

“It’s sad for us,” she said. “We had a wonderful relationship with the school. We feel that the teachers and staff there — it’s a community. They have really dedicated teachers and staff, and they did a wonderful job with Ethan’s education when he was there. It was definitely a faith and values-based education, and I can tell you that after he graduated from St. John and finished his elementary education at St. Michael, he was way ahead with his math skills, and these teachers really took the time to spend a lot of time with the students. There was a lot of one-on-one attention, which was really great. But I feel like it’s the end of an era with the school closing.”

Watkin said that as a single father supporting his family with one salary, St. John “saved my hide” with its willingness to be flexible with his schedule.

“I was able to work 50 hours a week, and they were very good at taking (my kids) in at 7:15 if I had an early call,” he said. “If there was room, they would let them go to early care and all they asked from me was $150 a week.”

When he first moved to Winslow four years ago, he said the school allowed him to pay $50 a week until he was awarded raises and could contribute more and more. The values that St. John stands for are among the things he will miss most about the school.

“One thing I loved about St. John is that it helped my kids not be complacent,” he said. “It taught them: you can do better, you can do better, God is calling you to greater things. To add faith to education is a beautiful thing.”

Kids in the pre-school class at St. John Catholic School in Winslow listen as Maine Bishop Robert Deeley reads to them school during a visit on Dec. 14, 2016. Morning Sentinel file photo

He said he feels it is essential for his kids — Bear, Danny and Gray — to grow up as active members of the Catholic religion.

“To have a school that fully understands the presence of body and blood of Christ and the Eucharist — that can’t be matched,” Watkin said. “You can see it in the way they treat the kids and the parents. It is amazing. I’ve never felt so good about leaving my kids somewhere in my life.”

Watkin said he has not yet decided where he will enroll his children next year.

“That’s a very difficult question,” he said. “I’m almost to the point where I would be willing to move closer to Bangor so my kids can do something up there. I don’t know much about Catholic school in Waterville. I’m raising three kids on one salary — my ex doesn’t pay child care. Unless it’s affordable, my kids are going to have to go to public school and then do three hours of (Catholic) studies with me every night until they move out.” 

“It’s definitely moments like now that bring tears to my heart,” Watkin added, welling up.

St. John the Baptist parish in Winslow was founded by the Rev. John W. Frawley in 1926 and was later combined with Corpus Christi as part of a regional consolidation. St. John Catholic School began its first school year in a building at St. Francis de Sales Parish on Sept. 4, 1927, and was overseen by the Ursuline Sisters and the Sisters of St. Joseph of Lyons, according to historic school records. On Jan. 9, 1928, the school moved to its Winslow campus. In that first year, there were 126 students spread between three classes. Enrollment in decades past paint a vastly different picture than today’s figures. The student population in 1930-31 was at 207 students, and at that time the school had to turn students away because “room was lacking,” records state. Ahead of the 1960-61 school year, that number had grown to 350.

Over the past year, Hammond helped promote fundraisers and distribute informational packets to area day care centers and the Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce as part of an effort to keep enrollment up and the school financially sustainable.

“Unfortunately, you can only do so much,” she said. “I can certainly take some comfort in knowing that we gave it our all.”

Bishop Robert P. Deely said the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland’s Office of Lifelong Faith Formation will work with Corpus Christi to set up “alternative programs and ministries” for the children of St. John Catholic School going forward.

“The closing of St. John is not a result of a lack of generosity, but simply a demographic and financial realty,” he wrote in the news release. “Corpus Christi Parish and the diocese will use this sad moment to strengthen our resolve to reach more young people with Jesus’ message of love.”


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