By JOHN ANDERSON
When the 2021-2022 school year ended, the Immaculate Conception School of Allegany County Board of Trustees knew there was no way the school could have a school year in 2022-2023.
After all, the K-8 Catholic school had dropped the seventh and eighth grade as enrollment at the younger levels was below the numbers needed to keep the school open.
But this is Wellsville, a village, a town and a region where four generations of students graduated from the “junior” Harvard of Maple Avenue. Where students received a top education in a small classroom setting taught by teachers who took pay cuts to work in the faith-based school. It also helped the sports teams had fewer losses the last 60 years than Rosary beads.
The board and Father Jim Hartwell decided to open the doors in 2021-2022. And again in 2022-2023, knowing giving up was the easier answer.
With 20 kids registered for next year, the decision was made for them. The board contacted the Diocese of Buffalo, and pre-K through sixth grade classes will not happen this fall.
“To have to close at this particular juncture is sad … they (the board and the staff) are in mourning,” said Father Jim Hartwell. “At the same time, we were beyond the point of reason last year, but we sally forthed in hopes of rebounding a little bit, but it’s just not sustainable.”
When asked if the school could re-open, Father Jim said looking at the numbers, he doesn’t see that strong of a rebound. He pointed out the declining graduation class sizes in the area and even Whitesville sending high school students to Andover.
It was too much of a fight the last couple of years,” he said. “Generally, schools that close do not re-open.
The enrollment issues actually started in the late 90’s. Across the country, a study in 2007 showed a 14 percent decrease in enrollment in Catholic schools over a 20-year span.
Then, the Catholic church was rocked by their own sexual abuse scandal, covering up decades and decades of abuse by priests against children. The problem did not hit Wellsville, but it did take a hit on a decline in parishioners and students enrollment..
Between 1990 and 2007, the number of Catholic schools in the United States decreased by 14% and enrollment diminished by 7%. According to the National Catholic Educational Association, there was a decline of over 111,000 students in 2021 and the decline started in 2020.
Certainly, those have come and made their way here (the national scandals), Father Jim said. “But Covid didn’t help at all.”
Father Jim explained in many areas of the state and the nation, a lot of high schools went to remote learning. Wellsville did not.
“Some catholic schools got a Covid bounce when public schools closed and the Catholic school opened,” he said. “But Wellsivlle remained open. A lot of places, people did not want their kids to stay home and they sent them to Catholic schools. At ICS, some of the families that left during Covid did not come back.”
Then there is the population decline.
“There are a lot of people who went though this school, who sent their children, and their children sent their children,” Father Jim said. “It’s a multi-generation institution. There are reasons for the forces that transported many out of the area and they could not send their children to ICS.”
Next up is decisions for the building.
“The parish and the parish leadership are going to have to discuss this. There have been a lot of ideas thrown around,” he said. “There are a lot of things with the state that we have to complete when you are closing a school. Once that is completed, the parish has full custody of the building and then we can say, ‘What do we want to do with it?’ “
The low enrollment numbers were known for months. But the official letter to parents was received on Saturday. Father Jim said the community has been understanding.
“It’s sad they are not going to have that faith-based option,” he said. “But a lot of people understand. Knock on wood, we haven’t had anyone calling us upset with us.”
Immaculate Conception Church, one of the most beautiful churches in the nation and the subject of photo essays, is still strong.
“The church is still stable,” Father Jim said, then with a laugh adds, “We would like to see more in church, but it’s doing well.”