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Father Delbel addresses parents and parishioners at a meeting shortly after the school closure was announced.
Father Delbel addresses parents and parishioners at a meeting shortly after the school closure was announced.

Champlain's St. Mary's Academy closes its doors

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Another Catholic school is closing in the North Country. St Mary's Academy, a pre-kindergarden to 6th grade elementary school within the Clinton County town of Champlain, won't reopen in the fall.

Catholic officials blame declining enrollment, a budget deficit, and worries about long-term debt.

But for parents of the 46 kids, from New York, Quebec and Vermont, who went to St. Mary's, the decision has meant painful changes.

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St Mary's Academy in Champlain, New York. The school first opened in 1906. An empty classroom at St Mary's.

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Walk down the halls of St. Mary’s, and it’s hard to believe that the school is closed. Bright posters fill the walls, and classrooms are stocked with textbooks, desks, and computers.

The trophy case holds awards from decades of basketball games. There are even a few winter jackets still hanging from pegs in the hallway.

Rosanne Merrill’s four children attended St. Mary’s last year. She’s not Catholic, but says the school was the perfect educational choice for her family: "It was a small school, the classes were really small, everybody knew each other, we just fell in love with it."

That's why, for Roseanne, the abrupt decision to close the school was jarring: "We all of a sudden got a random call on July 2 that said the school was closed, from sister. Nobody knew why, nobody knew what happened, I mean we were just—we had no idea."

St. Mary’s opened in 1906. It’s been in financial trouble for years, operating on a deficit. But parents and administrators were confident the school would remain open. They had met conditions set out by the Diocese of Ogdensburg this past winter, boosting their enrollment for the coming year to 70 students and raising $117,000.

But then an anonymous donor rescinded a $50,000 donation. Reverend James Delbel is pastor at St. Mary’s parish. He says the loss of the donation meant that the school would have to borrow money. And Delbel wasn’t willing to do that.  Seven years ago he borrowed $225,000 to keep the school open, and, he says, "I promised the parish at that time that if I ever had to borrow again, for the school, that I would close the school."

The Diocese of Ogdensburg was also pushing for changes at the school. In late June, Catholic officials asked that the parish and the school share a bank account. They wanted the school to operate more clearly as a ministry of the parish. They also wanted stronger fundraising.  

Over the years, the parish and the school had operated increasingly independently from each other. And joining their finances was not a choice that Father Delbel was willing to make.

So he closed the school last month. Sister Cordata was principal at St. Mary’s for 13 years. It was her job to deliver the news. She called the faculty first, and word leaked out to parents: "Realizing that I’d already gotten three or four phone calls from parents asking if it was true, and one parent that drove right in from Quebec in tears, I realized I had to get it out to the parents from me."

Rosanne Merrill says she was approached by other parents, who decided to call a meeting with Father Delbel in order to understand what had happened.

"I called Father and asked if he would be willing to meet with us, just an informational meeting, not really a meeting of changing his mind, just having our questions answered, things like that," she said. "He told me that he saw no point in meeting with us. I tried to explain to him that we were hurt and that there was no closure for us. We went in at the end of the year thinking we would be open—and we’re not."

The meeting happened and it was tense. Father Delbel and the parish council defended the decision to close the school. The meeting was videotaped by Home Town Cable. A parent from Quebec even offered to write a $50,000 check on the spot if it would keep the school open.

But the decision was final, meaning that St. Mary’s 70 students had to figure out other options for the coming school year, and that the fourteen people employed by the school, including Sister Cordata, were out of a job.

"I’m unemployed!" Sister Cordata said with a laugh. "I don’t know what happens to me. I know I’m working here until the end of August." 

Rosanne Merrill has decided to homeschool her kids this year. She says that the closure hasn’t been easy for people in the town of Champlain.

"It really seemed to divide the community here. Being such a small community as it is, there’s not a lot to do and it really did bring the community together, more than I think people realize."

Merrill and other parents started exploring the option of starting a new Catholic school, across the bridge in Alburgh, Vt. They say they were unable to get the approval from the bishop and the diocese of Burlington, which means that if they do start a school, it can’t be Catholic. 

Principal Sister Cordata says she’d like to be involved in new school, if it gets of the ground. But for now, she’ll wait and see.

"I’m coming to school every day, and doing what I have to do to close the school, and do reports, and clean out things, and then tomorrow God will show me what he wants of me," she said. 

Kids who aren’t homeschooled have other options. There are two elementary schools in the Northeastern Clinton Central School—one in Mooers, and one in Rouses Point. The nearest Catholic elementary school, Seton Academy is Plattsburgh, is 23 miles away. 


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