When Eliza Maher graduated in June from eighth grade at Geneva’s St. Francis-St. Stephen School, she was already looking forward to starting this fall at DeSales High School, which is located just across High Street from St. Francis-St. Stephen.
Many of Eliza’s relatives, including her brothers, mother and grandmother, graduated from DeSales, and Eliza herself already had run on DeSales modified cross-country team and played on the Saints’ varsity softball team, which won a sectional title last spring.
But her dreams of carrying on the family tradition at DeSales were dashed on July 31, when the school’s board of trustees held an emergency meeting and voted to close the school.
“I always felt like I was a Saint, that I was part of DeSales, but it would have been nice to be able to walk the halls as a Saint,” said Eliza, who instead will be attending Geneva High School.
DeSales’ trustees had announced in May that the school needed to raise $200,000 by June 30 in order to open for the 2012-13 school year. This marked the third consecutive year in which the school had launched a last-minute fundraising campaign in order to reopen for the following year. DeSales was still $90,000 short of its goal as of June 28, but momentum seemed to be building and the trustees said they were confident the school’s enrollment and financial goals were within reach. They resolved to keep the school open, pending approval from DeSales’ corporate board.
DeSales’ fundraising momentum stalled in July, however, and by the end of the month just 256 of 5,000 alumni had contributed to DeSales’ Save Our School campaign, said Peter Cheney, president of the board of trustees. At the same time, rumors and speculation about the school’s status sparked a drop in enrollment, he added. School officials had based DeSales’ 2012-13 budget on a bare-minimum enrollment of 105 students, but by late July at least 10 families had withdrawn their children and enrollment had fallen to just 85 students, Cheney said.
When the corporate board met July 30, Cheney said he couldn’t realistically assure its members that DeSales could meet its goals. At that point, there was a strong possibility that the board would have recommended closure of the 100-year-old institution because the school lacked the necessary funds to support itself, said Anne Willkens-Leach, superintendent of diocesan schools and a member of the corporate board. Instead, however, Cheney asked the corporate board to allow DeSales’ board of trustees to make the final decision. The corporate board agreed, so Cheney called an emergency meeting at which the trustees “made the only decision we could at this time,” he said.
“While the decision to end the school’s long tenure is difficult for all who love DeSales, we felt it was the only responsible course,” Cheney said in an Aug. 1 statement.
Once the decision was made, the school building and grounds reverted back to Geneva’s Our Lady of Peace Parish, which comprises the former St. Francis de Sales Parish, founder of the school, and the neighboring St. Stephen Parish. Father Paul Tomasso, pastor of Our Lady of Peace, said the parish assumed not only the school property, but also its bills. The parish eventually might lease or sell the building, but it’s too soon to make any concrete plans, he said.
“We just are in the very beginning stages. Right now we’re working on removing the records, collecting the archives, which will come to Our Lady of Peace Parish, and returning supplies and books that have been ordered, trying to recoup any costs,” Father Tomasso said.
The priest said his main concern is for DeSales’ displaced students, faculty and staff.
“I think this is part of the death and resurrection of our Christian life, and while we lost a great school, something good can come out of it. I don’t know what that is yet,” Father Tomasso said. “My hope is that as this is a death, there will be a resurrection.”
DeSales’ closing does feel like a death, but the school community has been reunited in a small way on the school’s Facebook page, said Danny Hastings, who graduated from DeSales in June. Hastings started the page two years ago as a way to keep students informed about school happenings, and alumni soon began frequenting the page as well. Since news broke of DeSales’ closing, the page has become a way for alumni of all ages to share stories, memories and photos from their years at the school, Hastings said.
Suzanne Rago is one such alum who has visited the school’s Facebook page to connect with fellow alumni and learn more about the school’s closure. A 1960 DeSales graduate, Rago sent her children to her alma mater, and those children eventually sent their children there as well.
“There’s an intangible quality, and you can’t put your finger on what draws you to it or keeps you in it,” Rago said. “I love DeSales, and I will continue to love DeSales even though it’s no longer there in the future.”
Like Eliza Maher, Hastings counts many family members among the school’s alumni, and many of them volunteered at the school after they graduated. Hastings had been looking forward to doing the same, he said, noting that he feels sorry for younger students who never will get to experience the small school’s family-like atmosphere. In early August someone congratulated him on being a member of DeSales’ last graduating class, and the offhand comment made him sad.
“It’s not something I’d want to have. I’m proud that I was able to graduate from DeSales, but I’m not exactly proud of that title,” he said.