LOUISVILLE — There are people in his parish who are old enough to remember when the Rev. Robert M. Miller was a student walking the halls of St. Louis School.
On Thursday, the Catholic elementary school at 218 N. Chapel St. will close its doors for the final time after serving children for 167 years.
“It’s difficult to say goodbye to what we’ve been able to accomplish here,” Miller said. “As the same time, it’s a testament to the larger community. One reason people feel they don’t have to necessarily send their kids here is because we have a wonderful school system.”
A commemorative Mass will be celebrated at 6:30 p.m Wednesday at the church at 300 N. Chapel St. Bishop George V. Murry, head of the Catholic Diocese of Youngstown, will be the chief celebrant.
A reception and tours of the school will follow the Mass.
St. Louis is closing because of dwindling enrollment. Miller, called “Father Bob” by his parishioners, said that when he was a child, it wasn’t unusual to have 30 students in a class, and that each grade — first through eighth — had two classrooms.
Today, only about 60 students in preschool through fifth grade are enrolled.
Alliance native Mario Calandros has served as St. Louis’ principal for six years, half of his 12 years in Catholic education.
“We have a fantastic staff and families,” he said. “Everyone I worked with has been wonderful. We worked hard to make this place wonderful for children.”
Calandros said he’s happy that 60 percent of St. Louis’ students will be attending other local Catholic schools.
“We’re grateful for people who are invested in Catholic education and what this kind of environment has to offer,” he said.
Generations of children
Miller said the parish will continue to use the school building for religious education programs.
“Catholic education isn’t necessarily about arithmetic and geography,” he said. “It teaches us about other people and cultures, and our relationship with God in this world; how we take care of it, and it takes care of us. Catholic education gives voice to that.”
“Catholic education is being able to talk about human rights and dignity,” added Calandros, who serves as religious education director at St. Louis and at Sacred Heart parish in nearby Nimishillen Township.
Calandros attended Regina Coeli School and St. Thomas Aquinas High School. A graduate of the University of Mount Union, he acquired his master’s degrees in education and administration from Walsh University.
Shelly Swierz arrived from Youngstown in 1979. Bonnie Whitmer grew up in Canton. Their daughters were St. Louis classmates, graduating from the eighth grade in 1987.
Whitmer, who worked for 40 years as the school’s auxiliary coordinator for government programs, said St. Louis had nearly 275 students back then.
She noted that “generations upon generations” of parishioners sent their children to St. Louis School.
“We have photos from the 1920s, and some of the names are still present,” Calandros said.
The group said Catholic schools everywhere began losing students when tuition was introduced. Prior to that, parochial schools were free for parish families, with nuns serving as instructors.
Miller said he left St. Louis in the seventh grade because of tuition.
“It was a culture shock,” said Swierz, who recalled that she left Catholic high school in Youngstown because her father balked at paying the $80 monthly tuition.
“That was a lot of money back then,” she said.
St. Louis was slated to closed six years ago as part of the diocese’s “Transition for Growth” plan that shuttered some schools and reconfigured others as campuses under Holy Cross Academy Catholic Schools.
“We had an appeal to remain open,” Calandros said. “The plan included transferring sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders to St. Thomas Aquinas (middle school) and building up our preschool. We were hoping a large preschool would transfer to enrollment.”
A parish committee was formed to foster school growth and vitalization. Calandros said a survey also was conducted find out what area families wanted. Among the suggestions was an after-school/latchkey program, which was added.
Private donations were raised to upgrade some classrooms with new lighting and smart boards. In addition to textbooks, students also were assigned iPads and Chromebooks.
None of it led to an increase in enrollment.
“Some people didn’t necessarily feel they could meet the (tuition),” Calandros said. “Others were just not interested in having their children participate in religious education.”
The latchkey program also will close, he said.
“They set some lofty goals but unfortunately, none of the goals were ever attained,” Miller said. “We even had private scholarship money that wasn’t taken advantage of, so it’s not like all of the students were priced out. Fortunately for us, we live in a community that values education. We’re not concerned that kids are going to lack in education because we have a good religious-education program here to teach our kids about their faith, and their roles as leaders and children of God.”
Miller noted that, while Louisville’s population has held fairly steady, modern families have fewer children than when he was a child. The parish, established in 1832, currently has 754 families.
Swierz said that when her family arrived in 1979, St. Louis welcomed them with open arms.
“There was just a sense of a community; I didn’t know anyone here. But I’ve made lifelong friends,” she said, nodding at Whitmer. “It’s always been a feeling of family here.”
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