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Examiner
  • The final days for St. Mary's High School

  • Nina Gavoli could hardly hold back the tears as she spoke of what attending St. Mary’s High School has meant to her.

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  • Nina Gavoli could hardly hold back the tears as she spoke of what attending St. Mary’s High School has meant to her.
    “This school is such a big part of me,” said the St. Mary’s sophomore. “Both of my sisters went here. This is my family’s school. I broke down when I heard because the news upset me so badly. This school is my family. You know that you can count on anyone here.”
    The Kansas City-St. Joseph Catholic Diocese announced in January that this school year would be the last for the school, which has built a legacy of almost 160 years in Eastern Jackson County. Rapidly declining enrollment over the last few years was cited as a main reason for the closure.
    As a way to honor the St. Mary’s tradition and celebrate what it has brought to not only students and staff, but also the community, The Examiner will run a week-long series on the high school where thousands of students have attended since its opening in 1853. Stories will focus on students, alumni and sports teams celebrating the high school’s long history.
    “I am definitely going to miss all the people I teach and work with, but it is mainly about the kids,” said Brenda Peak, an English teacher at St. Mary’s as well as an alum of the school. “It really is like a big loss, St. Mary’s closing. Kind of like a part of your family is moving away. It is going to leave a big hole.”
    St. Mary’s High School was founded in 1853 by Father Bernard Donnelly, 12 years before Independence opened its first public school. According to the history on the school's website, Donnelly was appointed as first pastor of St. Mary’s Parish in 1845. At that time, the parish consisted of southwest Missouri, but Donnelly lived in the young frontier community of Independence.
    A plot of land was given to the school by Susan A. Hamilton. Only a small building sat on the land. Donnelly turned that building into a school. Today, that building would have faced Main Street. Because there was no money for a teacher, Donnelly became an educator as well as a priest. When Independence opened its first school in 1865, arrangements were made with the public school board to hire two Catholic teachers, who would instruct both Catholic and non-Catholic students.
    After a tornado heavily damaged the school, a new one was built in 1878 that would serve as a school/convent for 75 years. In 1884, the Sisters of Mercy came to St. Mary’s Parish to reside permanently. A day school was created for Catholic children, and a boarding school was created for young women. It was this boarding school that was the origin of St. Mary’s Diocesan High School. Although boys were temporarily admitted to the school under the name St. Jerome’s Preparatory School, that practice was discontinued in 1912 and St. Mary’s remained an all-girls school until the 1940s.
    Page 2 of 3 - A new school, where St. Mary’s is located today, was completed in 1947. Additions were made, and in 1968, St. Mary’s High School became a diocesan school, opening enrollment to students beyond the parish boundaries. Enrollment boomed in the 1970s when two other schools in the diocese closed – De La Salle and Cardinal Glennon – and the student populations merged into St. Mary’s.
    Brenda Peak, who has been teaching at St. Mary’s for 42 years, said the school was much bigger and “so much different” back then.
    “When I started, there were like 600 kids,” she said. “But it wasn’t the same feeling that we have now. I don’t think the teachers were as close with the kids because we didn’t have the time to spend with each one of them. When we started to become smaller and more compact is when we became closer.”
    Even today, that feeling of closeness and family is something that every student and staff member echoes as the key to what makes the school unique. St. Mary’s population might be small, but it is mighty, and there is a sense of camaraderie that weaves throughout the hallways.
    For many years, St. Mary’s maintained a steady enrollment. There were not huge surges in student population as some of the nearby public school districts were experiencing, but the school was holding its own. However, an economic downturn coupled with the annexation of western Independence schools into the Independence School District five years ago hit St. Mary’s hard.
    Since the 2006-07 school year, enrollment has dropped from 192 to just more than 100 students this year. When it came time for middle school students to declare what high school they would be going to, only a handful said they would attend St. Mary’s. It was also revealed in the spring of 2012 that St. Mary’s has been deficit spending for the last several years. In order to offset the deficit, the diocese has loaned St. Mary’s more than $880,000 since 2008. That number is expected to reach almost $1 million by the end of the school year. St. Mary’s developed a deficit-reduction plan in hopes of remaining open as long as it could. This included operating under a joint administrator with O’Hara and cutting several teaching and staff positions.
    The original plan was for St. Mary’s to remain open until the fall of 2015 when the much-talked-about St. Michael the Archangel Catholic High School in Lee’s Summit is expected to open. At that time both St. Mary’s and Archbishop O’Hara would both close, merging into St. Michael.
    However, when St. Mary’s financial and enrollment issues were evaluated last fall, the diocese determined what current and former students had been dreading - St. Mary’s would close.
    Page 3 of 3 - “The enrollment prospect for the 2013-14 school year became only more bleak during the course of this study and consequently, no viable solution for keeping St. Mary’s was forthcoming,” said Superintendent Dan Peters in the letter sent to parents. “While the loss of an historic and beloved school such as St. Mary’s is a great sadness, the diocese remains committed to offering a quality Catholic education to St. Mary’s students at St. Pius or O’Hara.”
    When the news broke of St. Mary’s future, students were devastated.
    “I am broken-hearted for the underclassmen because they will not be able to graduate from St. Mary’s,” said Kylee Scott, a St. Mary’s senior. “There is a closeness here at St. Mary’s. That’s what makes us special. The fact that we won’t have anything to come back to is hard, really hard.”
     

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