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.’ ” ••EndFragment