DOGTOWN — A normally joyous event for Fox 2 anchor and consumer reporter Mike Colombo had a sad side Saturday night.
Colombo, a 2000 graduate of Dogtown’s St. James the Greater Catholic School, served for the sixth time as emcee of the 11th Annual Church Decades of Dreams dinner auction in the parish gym. Added to the normal banter of the event was the revelation that Archbishop Robert Carlson had accepted a recommendation that the St. James school be closed at the end of the year.
“From an emotional standpoint, it’s upsetting. It’s the end of a place that was a big part of our lives,” Colombo said before the fundraiser. “But from a business standpoint, you can understand why this decision has come to be.”
St. James the Greater Catholic Parish and parents fought for years to keep the school at 1360 Tamm Ave open. But in a post on the parish’s Facebook page, church pastor Father Rajpaul Sundararaj last month announced he had recommended to Archbishop Robert Carlson that the school be closed at the end of the 2019-20 school year. And on Feb. 8, a spokesman for the archdiocese said Carlson had accepted that recommendation.
“The Archdiocese of St. Louis is saddened by the need to close St. James the Greater School in Dogtown,” said Peter Frangie, executive director of strategic communications and planning for the archdiocese. “Archbishop Carlson accepted the recommendation of Father Sundararaj, who has worked with parish leaders to keep both the parish and school viable.”
The kindergarten through grade 8 program will close, but the preschool will stay open.
Colombo attended the school during the 1990s, when attendance really started sliding. He saw many people leave to attend public schools or Catholic schools in the county.
“Growing up, I lived five doors down from the school,” said Colombo. He said he spent countless hours in studies and athletics there and still has great relationships with many of his former classmates.
In a Facebook post last month announcing his recommendation, Father Sundararaj said various parish committees have met to discuss the future of the parish and school and to work on a 2019-20 budget for the school.
Now just 73 students attend the school. Class sizes range from four to 11. Kids in the school, which covers kindergarten through eighth grade, double up in fifth and sixth grades, as they do in seventh and eighth grades.
“The very fact the school has been open until now, it’s a joy, it’s a credit to the people who are here,” said Father Sundararaj said.
The issue is not money, but the number of students, Father Sundararaj said. Enrollment has gone down steadily since the mid-1990s. Even with an intensive marketing push, the decline has continued, he said. And keeping the school might weaken the parish, he said.
“I was given to understand that if we have something substantial to show to people that our enrollment would go up,” Sundararaj said. “It never took off in that sense.”
In 1960, 780 children attended the school, said John Schwob, director of pastoral planning for the Archdiocese of St. Louis. He said it’s a problem throughout the city.
“We have less students, and some of that is due to the fact we have fewer Catholic churches in the City of St. Louis,” Schwob said.
The housing stock in major south side neighborhoods is small, Schwob said. “When families have their second or third child, they may choose to move to the county, where they have bigger houses,” he said.
Father Sundararaj said that in February 2017 the church received a $300,000 gift from an anonymous donor. The school will use up that money by the end of this school year.
In addition, Principal Michael Biggs this year worked for free. But the church would have a new expense in the next year because Biggs won’t be returning.
Also, the 2019-20 budget would have a deficit of nearly $120,000 even with fundraising and before adding in reserves. To be stable, the school needs $200,000 to 300,000 more. Repairs and updates of the school building would cost about $400,000.
Most of the 50 or so people who commented on Sundararaj’s Facebook post expressed regret or sadness about his recommendations. Some didn’t like the announcement being made on Facebook or questioned why a closing is necessary.
One St. James alum who thought it was worth trying to keep the school alive is Bruce Marren, a member of the class of 1969. He said a group offered to take over the school’s lunch program, which would save the school $30,000. The building is in top shape and within a neighborhood, he said.
The parish survived during the 1930s and 1940s, when families could only pay $2 a month, Marren said.
“Many people have already accepted the school closing. What happened to the fighting Irish?” he said.
Marren said he had a lot of special memories of friends, faculty, and especially homecoming and St. Patrick’s Day parades.