It was hard enough for Sacred Heart School incoming eighth-grader Sarah Schiller to spend the last three months of the school year attending school remotely, unable to have that in-person contact with her teachers and friends.
But, in the back of Sarah’s mind was the comfort of knowing everyone was in the same situation, and they’d all be back together -- no matter if school was an in-person, remote or a hybrid model - for their last year as the “senior” students in the K-8 school.
However, the last thing Sarah expected was to learn during a July 9 Zoom audio call that Sacred Heart School (SAS) was closing.
Hurt, mad, disgusted and even questioning her Catholic faith, Sarah is determined to make it known the Archdiocese of New York’s decision is wrong, unacceptable, misguided and not what a Catholic institution does.
The decision to close Sacred Heart School is part of the Archdiocese’s decision to close 20 schools and merge three Orange County schools.
Also closing is St. Stephen-St. Edward School, Warwick. Those schools will be merging with St. John School in Goshen.
“I’m devastated and disappointed in my Catholic leaders,” the Monroe resident said. “And, we’re supposed to be depending on the cardinal and bishop for guidance. These are the people closing my school and St. Stephen-St. Edward in Warwick. I was so looking forward to spending my eighth-grade year at Sacred Heart School. This is my family; I’ve spent more time at Sacred Heart than my own home. It’s just unbelievable.”
Sarah said she believes the parents who are saying the school had met or exceeded its enrollment numbers. She also doesn’t believe the archdiocese’s explanation.
Cardinal: ‘Children are the innocent victims’
In its July 9 statement, the Archdiocese said: “The coronavirus public health crisis has had a devastating financial impact on Catholic school families and the greater Archdiocese. Mass unemployment and continuing health concerns have resulted in families’ inability to pay their current tuition, and a significantly low rate of re-registration for the fall; while months of cancelled public masses and fundraising for scholarships have seen a loss of parish contributions which traditionally help support the schools.”
Also in that statement, Cardinal Timothy Dolan acknowledged children are the innocent victims of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Too many have lost parents and grandparents to this insidious virus, and now thousands will not see their beloved school again,” Dolan said in the statement. “I’ve kept a hopeful eye on our schools throughout this saga and my prayers are with all of the children and their families who will be affected by this sad news.”
‘Children are the future of the Catholic faith’
That’s not sitting well with Sarah and larger Sacred Heart School community.
“Our plan is to ultimately save our school, which is our home, and, ultimately, our faith because children are the future of the Catholic faith,” said Sarah. “I don’t understand how closing our school will keep our faith alive. We just can’t imagine ourselves leaving our home before we graduated. That was the plan, to graduate with my best friends and say goodbye on our terms, not the Archdiocese’s. We had no notice of this, of any opportunities to address this.”
What COVID-19 caused in Sacred Heart’s academic world, Sarah stressed, was only the inability of all students to be physically together.
“We missed out on so many memories last year,” she said. “We were planning to make those memories this year and now we can’t. We were so excited to spend our last year together.”
The notion of attending St. John School in Goshen is unappealing.
“I have no idea what I’m doing, I’m undecided at this time,” said Sarah. “I’m very hopeful this will be reversed.”
She had strong words for Dolan.
“I would tell Cardinal Dolan he forgot the children,” Sarah said. “He forgot the children in his mathematical equation. I would ask him ask him why he is doing this? Why is he tearing apart families, the families who believe in the value of community and faith schools?”
In fact, Sarah feels Dolan owes students and families a personal visit to explain the decision.
“We demand answers,” she said, noting hundreds of voice messages have been left with the Archdiocese without return calls. “I want to cardinal to come to see us. I want him to see the school they are shutting down. He was just here when we moved the tabernacle (to the center of church’s alter) and he saw our thriving school and community. He told us we were thriving.”
Sarah’s anger and disappointment is so significant she’s even questioning the role Catholicism has in her life.
“My Catholicism being challenged and my trust has been broken in the leadership, absolutely broken,” she said, tears in her voice. “We’ve been taught to respect these people and they’ve let us down tremendously. Catholics don’t do that. I want my children to go to Catholic school and at this point there will be none left. The school and the children are the foundation of our faith and future.”
‘We are the Sacred Heart Saints’
Sarah knows the number of people joining forces to try to save the school is growing. They, too, plan to make their voices heard in any way possible to get the attention of Archdiocese authorities. While everyone is hopeful, they recognize it could be impossible to overturn the decision.
“They should have given us a chance to save our school,” she said. “We had no warning whatever. They’re using COVID-19 as an excuse for their financial problems. Not here. That is a lame excuse.”
“We are the Sacred Heart ‘Saints,’” she said. “We are praying for the intercession of the saints to save our school. We have the numbers, we have the money, where is the ‘why?’”