St. Bernard School prepares to close its doors in May

| April 7, 2015 | 0 Comments
In this 2014 photo, preschool students at St. Bernard Catholic School in Cologne listen to a story. The pre-kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school will close at the end of the school year. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

In this 2014 photo, preschool students at St. Bernard Catholic School in Cologne listen to a story. The pre-kindergarten through sixth-grade school will close at the end of the school year. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

When the six teachers and 41 students at St. Bernard Catholic School in Cologne say their goodbyes on the last day of school May 29, they’ll also bid farewell to the school that has been an educational home for 138 years.

In an October 2014 letter to parishioners and school families, St. Bernard pastor Father Gregory Abbott wrote that the school serving students in pre-kindergarten through sixth grade would close, citing declining enrollment, and parish and school finances. He noted that he made the decision with the input of parish leadership after much consultation, conversation and prayer.

Although the St. Bernard community has been planning for the closure, many, including Father Abbott, were hopeful when a group of donors recently shared a proposal with parish leadership to fund the school. But in a March 20 letter, Father Abbott said that after review, the school wouldn’t be able to meet the donors’ criteria.

“It wasn’t the desire of the parish leadership to have to close the school, because we believe the kids were getting a wonderful education, and we were able to hand down our faith to the children,” Father Abbott said later. “The teachers and staff did a very good job of that, and those were the reasons we wanted to keep it going.”

The school’s summer daycare program also will end.

The school advisory committee is planning a send-off for the families, students and teachers on the last day of school. A special Mass with Bishop Andrew Cozzens will be offered May 31 with a reception following.

Of the close, Father Abbott said there’s hope even in the midst of loss.

“It’s painful. It’s a death. And so there’s sadness and anger and mourning. [But] there’s always hope where God is concerned. And God is still here. There’s new life that can come as we mourn the loss of our school.”

Facing challenges

After decades of leadership from the School Sisters of Notre Dame, Sister Jancy Nedumkallel, a Franciscan Clarist, has served as principal for the past 13 years and said the school was the “heart of the community.”

“It is so sad to close it when we need Catholic schools the most,” she said, adding that she’ll especially miss the children.

Sister Jancy acknowledged the challenge of boosting enrollment in a small community; Cologne has a population of about 1,500. Even with tuition rates lower than nearby Catholic schools, St. Bernard had competition from a local charter school that she described as “bubbling.” Three support staff members brought the school’s entire staff to nine, and the school didn’t have a specialized Spanish teacher, music teacher or physical education teacher, or extra-curricular activities, Father Abbott said.

A three-year plan for the school’s future arose in 2010 when it was among several Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis to undergo an “urgent review,” Father Abbott said. What resulted were numerous goals involving parish investment in the school, teacher-student ratios and enrollment. For various reasons, most of the goals were not met, Father Abbott said.

Sister Jancy said she’s uncertain about the employment status of each of her staff members, but one will retire, and others will apply at other Catholic schools. A representative from the archdiocese’s Office of Catholic Schools visited St. Bernard to speak with staff members. The fate of the century-old building also is unknown.

Next steps

To help the community through the process, the parish has formed a transitional committee, whose members have worked with two area Catholic schools, Guardian Angels in Chaska and St. Joseph in Waconia, to welcome former St. Bernard students.

Parish trustee Andy Kleindl, who had three children attend St. Bernard, said the parish is providing financial assistance for students wishing to attend another Catholic school.

Father Abbott said the end of the school doesn’t mean the end of Catholic education at St. Bernard, adding that the parish will continue to invest in its youth and already has implemented the “Chosen” confirmation program recently developed by nationally known youth minister and Catholic speaker Chris Stefanick.

Kleindl described the next major step as building its faith formation programs. “We can still provide Catholic education through a different means,” he said. “We will continue to be strong Catholics and support our parish.”

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