— St. Wil­li­am School pays trib­ute to 88 years of suc­cess.

St. Wil­li­am Ele­ment­ary School’s 8th grade class of 2012 in­clud­ing Am­ber Haugh­ney, front cen­ter, sa­lute teach­ers and staff on Sunday, June 10. St. Wil­li­am will be clos­ing on June 15. On Sunday, pa­rish­ion­ers and oth­ers held a cel­eb­ra­tion of the school’s his­tory. Kev­in Cook / for the Times


St. Wil­li­am Ro­man Cath­ol­ic Church wel­comed a stand­ing room-only crowd to its “Hon­or­ing the Leg­acy of Edu­ca­tion” Mass on Sunday af­ter­noon.

Af­ter­ward, hun­dreds of people gathered in the par­ish hall to look at old school pic­tures and news­pa­per clip­pings and tour classrooms one fi­nal time.

St. Wil­li­am Ele­ment­ary School, at Rising Sun and Rob­bins av­en­ues, will close for good on Fri­day, the vic­tim of de­clin­ing en­roll­ment.

“It shows people ap­pre­ci­ate the place,” Monsignor James E. Mor­timer, pas­tor emer­it­us, said of the turnout. “It’s a great place. A school is cent­ral, the heart of a par­ish. I’m sad, but today is a thank you to God for all the great things that happened at St. Wil­li­am.”

St. Wil­li­am School opened on Sept. 8, 1924 and flour­ished for dec­ades.

However, en­roll­ment has been on a steady de­cline for sev­er­al reas­ons, most ob­serv­ers agree.

People don’t have as many chil­dren as they once did. The neigh­bor­hoods of Lawndale and Cres­centville have changed since the mid-1990s, with middle-class fam­il­ies re­placed by poor people and non-Cath­ol­ics. Charter schools have hurt Cath­ol­ic school en­roll­ment since com­ing in­to ex­ist­ence 15 years. And tu­ition costs are out of reach for many fam­il­ies.

Most of the St. Wil­li­am stu­dents will head to St. Cecil­ia, in Fox Chase. A siz­able num­ber will go to Present­a­tion BVM, in Chel­ten­ham.

The change could be hard­est on sev­enth-graders, who’ll be at their new school for only a year.

“I’ve been here since kinder­garten. I was hop­ing to gradu­ate from here. That’s the big down­er of the school clos­ing,” said John Mee­han, an al­tar serv­er at Sunday’s Mass and a fu­ture Present­a­tion gradu­ate.

Among the fac­ulty, five teach­ers have been hired at St. Cecil­ia. An­oth­er ac­cep­ted a job at a South Jer­sey Cath­ol­ic school.

Kathy Mc­Donough is a 1971 St. Wil­li­am gradu­ate. She’s taught in Cath­ol­ic schools for 25 years, in­clud­ing the last 19 at her alma ma­ter. She doesn’t know her next move, but will miss St. Wil­li­am.

“It’s been a life­time of memor­ies. Every day, it’s been a bless­ing to come back home,” said Mc­Donough, co-chair­wo­man of the plan­ning com­mit­tee for the farewell cel­eb­ra­tion.

At the Mass, alumni car­ried the tra­di­tion­al gifts and sym­bol­ic gifts — the school bell, a year­book, a brick and a plant — to the al­tar.

Eighth-graders, who are gradu­at­ing Wed­nes­day night, sung Plant­ing Seeds of Hope in trib­ute to teach­ers.

The Rev. Joseph Wat­son, the cur­rent pas­tor and a 1979 gradu­ate of St. Wil­li­am, de­livered a well-re­ceived homily. His theme was grat­it­ude and hope. The par­ish is stay­ing open.

“We’re grate­ful to the sis­ters, the teach­ers and the aux­il­i­ary staff who made this school a suc­cess for so many years,” he said.

Tom Sweeney has been a lifelong friend of Wat­son’s. The two gradu­ated to­geth­er from St. Wil­li­am and Car­din­al Dougherty High School, which closed two years ago.

Sweeney is a former Lawn­crest Com­munity As­so­ci­ation pres­id­ent and loc­al bar own­er. He knows the price of run­ning a busi­ness and the real­it­ies when a neigh­bor­hood changes. He sold the bar four years ago, as many of his former cus­tom­ers had moved away.

“The bot­tom line is so high, no won­der schools are go­ing out,” Sweeney said. “Run­ning a par­ish is like run­ning a small busi­ness. Real dol­lars pay the bills. Every­body’s in dire straits these days.”

The mood was fest­ive dur­ing the open house. Out­side, in the heat, chil­dren jumped in a Moon­bounce as a disc jockey played mu­sic and fresh pop­corn and cot­ton candy were served.

In­side, cur­rent and former pa­rish­ion­ers looked through photo al­bums, walked the halls of the school, se­cured com­mem­or­ative T-shirts and cof­fee mugs and en­joyed hot dogs, dough­nuts and drinks.

Kathy Wer­sing­er, a 1968 St. Wil­li­am gradu­ate, spent all day serving lem­on­ade, iced tea and Hawaii­an Punch.

“St. Wil­li­am is an an­chor of the com­munity and has been for eighty-eight years. It’s very sad to see it leav­ing,” she said.

The alumni were happy to pay one fi­nal vis­it to their alma ma­ter and seemed to ac­cept that the nu­mer­ous chal­lenges fa­cing the school were too much to over­come.

Celine Severino is a 1975 gradu­ate of St. Wil­li­am. Her three sib­lings are also alums.

“St. Wil­li­am is near and dear to our hearts,” she said. “We had a won­der­ful ex­per­i­ence here, but I get what has to hap­pen.”

Jo Anne Cot­ton, a 1964 gradu­ate, had a hard time say­ing good­bye. She de­scribed her­self as “sad and happy at the same time.”

“The neigh­bor­hood changed, but they did a beau­ti­ful job keep­ing up the school,” she said.

Fran Shields, a 1967 St. Wil­li­am gradu­ate, re­calls be­ing in classrooms with 80 oth­er kids and only one nun in charge. There were no teach­er’s aides back then. He fondly vis­ited his old classrooms.

“It was a great place to grow up. I was up­stairs in my first-grade class from 1959-60. It seemed to be the size of a broom closet, but they some­how man­aged to teach us to read and write,” said Shields, a law­yer who was nom­in­ated on Fri­day by Gov. Tom Corbett for a seat on Mu­ni­cip­al Court.

Sis­ter Jane Mc­Fad­den, the vice prin­cip­al for the last three years, will as­sume the same po­s­i­tion at St. Fran­cis de Sales in West Phil­adelphia.

A strong pro­ponent of tu­ition vouch­ers, Sis­ter Jane is cau­tiously op­tim­ist­ic about the state of Cath­ol­ic ele­ment­ary edu­ca­tion. There are 14 so-called “mis­sion” schools in the Arch­diocese of Phil­adelphia, in­clud­ing St. Mar­tin of Tours in Ox­ford Circle. Those schools are in line for pos­sible fund­ing from sources out­side the arch­diocese.

“We have to edu­cate the poor. They’re all chil­dren of God,” Sis­ter Jane said.

Peggy Ann (Fisc­her) Os­borne and Judy Kreipe ar­rived at St. Wil­li­am in 1952 as fifth-graders. Peggy Ann came from St. Henry’s, at Fifth and Cay­uga streets. Judy came from a little farther — Texas — and spoke with a South­ern ac­cent.

The 1956 St. Wil­li­am grads re­mem­ber Sis­ter Her­man Joseph sum­mon­ing them and oth­er new stu­dents on the first day of school to the front of the classroom for in­tro­duc­tions. Ul­ti­mately, both new stu­dents were ac­cep­ted by their peers.

“I was May queen in eighth grade,” said Judy, now Sis­ter Ju­dith Kreipe, IHM.

“St. Wil­li­am has giv­en me a tre­mend­ous found­a­tion,” said Peggy Ann. “I have to say, ‘Thank you to St. Wil­li­am.’ ” ••


You can reach at twaring@bsmphilly.com.

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