Hope and sadness over schools' closing

Outside Holy Saviour Elementary School in Westmont, Joanne McNulty (left) walks home with son Matt Cona, 6. Behind them is Eric Velte with daughter Claire, 6. Holy Saviour will be merged with St. John in Collingswood at the end of this school year, under a new name. "I can't say enough about how wonderful this school is," McNulty said.

When the Diocese of Camden announced this week that nine Catholic elementary schools would close in June, the bad news took few by surprise.

Parents and administrators yesterday said they had been bracing themselves for the announcement, well aware some schools would be shuttered due to declining enrollment and rising deficits.

Still, many felt stung after learning it would be their school that would close.

"We're disappointed," said Ernie Benson, principal of Holy Saviour Regional in Westmont, which will merge with St. John in nearby Collingswood. "We've been discussing this for the last 15 months. We were hoping St. John's would be merging into us."

Enrollment at elementary schools in the six-county diocese has plummeted by almost a third since 2001, falling from 14,954 to 10,883.

In announcing the mergers Thursday, Bishop Joseph A. Galante said 30 of the diocese's 47 elementary schools had fewer than the 225 students needed to maintain one class per grade.

Attendance at Holy Saviour dropped from 205 last year to 164 this year.

School administrators said the newly combined schools will be given new names. Principals, teachers and other staff members will be required to reapply for their jobs.

In Cherry Hill, where Queen of Heaven School will merge into St. Peter Celestine, the process of combining the two student bodies already has begun.

Last night, parents planned to hold a party at St. Peter's to bring the children together, "so by the time September comes around, they'll already know each other," said Karen Iannetta, a graduate of Queen of Heaven who has a seventh grader there.

"The kids will be OK," Iannetta said, noting the schools already share ballfields. "This could come out a stronger and more vibrant Catholic school."

Not everyone shared Iannetta's optimism.

As parents picked up their children outside Holy Saviour yesterday, there were anguish, anger and tears.

Several said they had known Holy Saviour was a potential target, but did not know for certain it would close until Thursday - when children came home with letters from the diocese in their backpacks.

"I'm very sad, especially for the teachers and the children," said Katheryn Malcarney Baier, whose triplets attend first grade at Holy Saviour.

Kathleen and Eric Velte, whose two children attend the school, said the diocese created committees of parents, educators and parishioners to pick which schools to close. The committee evaluating that region said Holy Saviour should remain open, but it was shuttered, the Veltes said.

Kathleen Velte said she loved sending her children to Holy Saviour.

"My children feel safe here. They are confident," said Velte. "There is a sense of community and acceptance. Children need this kind of community."

"The bishop didn't follow the recommendations," said Joanne McNulty, who has three children at Holy Saviour. "I can't say enough about how wonderful this school is."

McNulty said she would probably send her children to the nearby public school.

Sean Dalton, the Gloucester County prosecutor, graduated from St. Bridget in Glassboro and has a daughter in sixth grade there. That school will be merged into St. Catherine of Siena in Clayton.

"It's a sad day for the St. Bridget's community," he said yesterday. "It's been an integral part of the Glassboro landscape for so many years."


Contact staff writer Sam Wood at 856-779-3838 or samwood@phillynews.com.