Rev. James Delbel speaks with parents about St. Mary’s Academy closing.
CHAMPLAIN — St. Mary’s Academy is closing and there is no going back, at least not at this time, says the Rev. James Delbel, pastor of St. Mary’s.
The priest said he promised he would never again borrow money to keep the school open and he aims to keep his promise. He further said the school has been unable to pay back its debt.
But some school officials see it differently and believe St. Mary’s Academy could remain open.
“We raised the money and our enrollment was up,” said school officer Amy Gehrig. “Everything was moving in the right direction. We were doing what we needed to do and are just baffled by this.”
“It is over,” said Delbel.
Roughly seven years ago, he said he borrowed a great deal of money to keep the school open, also promising that if he had to borrow money in the future he would close the school.
And that is just what happened, Delbel said.
He met with Diocese officials in Ogdensburg and was given the green light to keep the school open when a $50,000 donation was pulled back.
“We thought we were set to go, and that was the trip wire, and suddenly we would have to borrow again,” Delbel said. “I had to keep my promise to the parish.”
But Gehrig said the donor took the money back because of a new stipulation that all funds raised would have to be done so in the name of the church. The donor simply wanted to ensure the funds would be used for the school.
St. Mary’s Academy has a projected shortfall for next school year, though there appears to be confusion on the amount.
Delbel said the projected budget deficit for next year is $140,000.
He admitted there were positive signs for next year, including increased enrollment, but he said the money was not there.
“If I could have seen a brighter future, maybe we could have worked something out,” Delbel said. “I think there just comes a time when you recognize times have changed and it is time to call it quits.”
The parish is not rich, he pointed out.
“We have not been able to make a payment on debt in three years, and the Diocese could not make a loan to us,” Delbel said.
The economy continues to struggle, he said, and the area does too, especially in the wake of the closure of Pfizer in Rouses Point. Like the rest of the North Country, he said, the area has fallen on hard times.
St. Mary’s Academy has existed since 1906, though there has been a school as part of the parish since 1867. Opening a school occurred shortly after the parish was founded.
“This was all French up here and French kids needed a school,” Delbel said. “We have a long history of Catholic education.”
Today, it is the only Catholic school in the Northern Tier and would have enrolled 67 students next school year, many of them from Quebec.
The children loved the school, as did the parents, and it is difficult to see it end, but Delbel said that is “just the way it is.”
Local people have done what they can and are not willing to put money into it, Delbel said.
“It is an older community and a lot of people are on pensions and social security, and the money just isn’t here anymore,” he said. “The church’s income is done, and the whole thing is really sad.”
The closure will impact 16 employees. Tuition and donations have been returned.
“This school provided a good Catholic education and this is a painful process,” Delbel said.