High school graduation ceremonies are known as “commencement” because the ceremony is supposed to reflect the beginning of students’ post-high school lives away from their school.
Friday at St. Mary’s School in Platteville could be said to be a commencement for its students, since all of St. Mary’s 84 students are going to different schools next year.
The major exception to that metaphor is that Friday was St. Mary’s final day as a school. St. Mary’s once had 400 students, and had 135 two years ago, before enrollment dropped to 106 in 2010–11 and 84 this school year.
After 76 years, Platteville will be the largest city west of Madison and south of La Crosse without a Catholic school.
“To me it’s like a death,” said Carol Bass, the school’s administrative assistant. “There was hope that we were going to pull this out, and then we were told it’s done, there’s no gray area, it’s closed.”
St. Mary’s Home and School Association set up what might be the students’ most memorable last day in school in their lives, with a picnic at Smith Park, a showing of “The Pirates! Band of Misfits” at the Millennium Cinema, a pool party at the Platteville Aquatic Center, and a picnic at Legion Park.
St. Mary’s last day began with Mass and an emotional assembly attended by first- through seventh-graders (kindergarteners and eighth-graders had already been dismissed) and many of their parents. The assembly began with a Hail Mary by Rev. Faustino Ruiz, St. Mary’s pastor.
Joseph Hood, St. Mary’s principal for its final two years, thanked the students who “gave us a great year, and this was a wonderful year for all of us. This happens because of the love of your parents for each and every one of you.
“St. Mary’s is really all about you. Seeing you every day has always brought a smile to my face. … Your Christian identity, your Catholic identity that you have, you got that from your parents and your teachers at St. Mary’s and from the priests in the church.”
Hood said the Roman Catholic Church teaches that parents are their children’s primary teachers. “Thank you, parents, for allowing us to have your children every day,” he said, adding that St. Mary’s teachers and staff “could have chosen any place they wanted to … these are people your parents entrust you to on an every-day basis … they chose to be here because they love education, but more importantly because they love the children that got in front of them.”
Many St. Mary’s staff got standing ovations from students or parents — Bass, assistant principal Julie Addison-Fulton, and Sonia Haas, who Hood called “the best chef in all of Grant County.”
Bass noted that she had asked for boxes of facial tissue in an email to parents, and “I now have 700 boxes of Kleenex. And not a single one of them made it to this gym.
“I know you will all be wonderful human beings when you grow up, and I will pray for you every day.”
Students were introduced with their choice of a memorable accomplishment — being selected to the honor roll, basketball, the Knights of Columbus free throw shooting contest, the school art fair, being an altar server, First Communion.
Faculty and staff were given a sign with the letters F-A-I-T-H spelled out with photos from St. Mary’s — the gate in the church’s meditation garden, the school bell, the Mary statue on the altar, the cross at the top of the church, and an H formed by the church wall and stained glass windows.
The sign is available from the artist, Nicole Etringer of Evansville, for $30. The order deadline is June 25.
After the assembly, Bass said the end of St. Mary’s School was “not something that any of us wanted this to come to. … The kids have been pretty upbeat about it. The kids are going to be fine. I think the foundation we’ve been able to set for them will allow them to achieve any goal they have in life.”
Hood termed it “a very sad experience having a school close on you.” He isn’t sure what he’s going to do beyond “spending several weeks trying to clean out the school,” but he intends to stay in the Platteville area.
Children learned in late April that their last days in St. Mary’s 2011–12 school year would be the school’s last days.
“At first they were upset, and this was back in March and April, when it began to dawn on them that this was possible,” said Hood. “But since then they’ve been involved in figuring out what they’re going to do next year. I think there’s acceptance — not joyful acceptance, but they’re moving on. Personally I think they’re prepared for it wherever they go.”
Several teachers spoke while students were on way to their morning picnic, their conversations interrupted by students or parents saying goodbye and thanking them. All but one of St. Mary’s teachers is now in the job market.
“It’s been an honor and a privilege,” said Denise Olson, who taught at St. Mary’s for 14 years after teaching 18 years in suburban Chicago. “I was paid much better and the benefits were much better in Illinois, but I would never go back. The teachers here have your back all the time. There’s no competition — we’re working together for the school all the time. There’s just nothing like working at a Catholic school.”
About 24 children are going to St. Rose of Lima School in Cuba City, and two are going to other Catholic schools. The rest will be students in the School District of Platteville next year.
“Those little towns, that’s their heart and soul, the Catholic churches and their schools,” said kindergarten teacher Julie Wodarz.
Even though eighth-graders would be going to a new school anyway next year, Olson said they were “very upset. They said to me even though they’re graduating, ‘we don’t want to lose our school.’”
Many St. Mary’s alumni, most of whom went to school in the St. Mary’s building, came back for the school’s final days in the former O.E. Gray building, which St. Mary’s had been leasing from the school district. St. Mary’s parish had been running a capital campaign to raise money to purchase the building.
For third-grade teacher Ruthmary Long, St. Mary’s closing is the end of a personal era. Long is a St. Mary’s alumna, as were her eight siblings and her four children.
“It’s really hard because we have such a strong home and school organization that has worked and worked and worked so hard for the school,” said Long, who taught at St. Mary’s for 21 years. “Kids are resilient. At first, they were ‘what are we going to do?’ But the middle school has been wonderful, St. Rose [in Cuba City] has been wonderful. But as a teacher you’re concerned about the kids, and it’s heartbreaking to see the parents; they worked so hard. It’s been a privilege to be here for all these years.”
First-grade teacher Dee Woolf was one of three teachers honored at the assembly for teaching 25 or more years at St. Mary’s. Woolf started 38 years ago as a first-grade teacher, and after teaching nearly every St. Mary’s grade, was back to teaching first grade.
“It’s emotional,” she said. “My husband and I have three children, and they all went to school here, so they’re all kind of shell-shocked. It’s amazing the number of friendships that we formed, the parents and children and grandchildren that I was getting to know. It’s opening your life to other people and other people to you. It was a huge community, and it just follows you around.”
Woolf most enjoyed “watching students mature and develop their own little personalities and develop confidence. They became people who can function, thinking people following Jesus.”
The closing of St. Mary’s school makes at least one St. Mary’s staffer wonder what will happen to St. Mary’s parish.
“The thing that is holding that church together is school families,” said Bass. “And now these families aren’t going to be there.”