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Local parochial school will close its doors in May

Feb. 28, 2001

St. Mary's unable to handle mounting financial difficulties



Tears welled up at the base of her eye sockets. She mopped them away with her index finger just before they rushed down her cheeks, collected at her chin, and fell to the floor, drip by drip.

For Rita Regalado, the closing of St. Mary's Catholic School in Waco meant more than the loss of a school. It meant losing a place she considers home.

'This is my family,' said Regalado, a physical education teacher who has taught at the school for 18 years.

Her three children attended the school. One child, Richard, graduated cum laude from Harvard University, but she considers all of the kids in the school to be members of her family.

It seems that over the years parishioners have been fighting the good fight, trying to keep the doors of the school open as St. Mary's struggled financially.

The school has grappled with the issue of resources for some time.

'I can remember when the school first started. They couldn't afford paper, so they used used paper that was donated, said Dr. John Pisciotta, associate professor of economics at Baylor. 'I guess those kids got some real education, since they probably read all of the stuff that was on the back of the paper.'

Pisciotta's children, who are now adults, attended the school, and he said he will truly miss it.

St. Mary's is a parochial school, which means it is an extension of a parish church. In this case, it is extended from St. Mary's Catholic Church.

St. Mary's Catholic Church began in 1871 with the Sisters of St. Mary's De Namur who had journeyed to Waco from Fort Worth. The building that is now St. Mary's Catholic School was added in 1947. The school opened its doors in 1948 and is located at 1301 Washington Ave., near downtown.

It is not your typical parochial school. Sister Kenneth Regan, the school's principal, said, 'St. Mary's is an inner-city school and we have an obligation as educators to prepare our youngsters, not only for the here but for the hereafter; to accommodate diversity, break down prejudice and poverty.'

The school is diverse. Catholic and other denominations as well as various ethnic group students enter the school's hallways and classrooms.

While parochial and private schools are typically viewed as being reserved for those of the upper-income brackets, St. Mary's is very diverse along the economic scale.

Tuition at the school is relatively inexpensive when compared to tuition at other parochial schools. Parishioners are charged $163 per month and non-parishioner Catholics are charged $185 per month to attend. Parents of non-Catholic students are charged a fee of $200 per month.

Sister Regan said the difference in tuition is because of the monetary contribution that the Catholic students' parents make outside of the school to the Catholic Church.

Parents who are parishioners contribute to St. Mary's Church, as members and non-parishioner Catholics are supposedly contributing the Catholic Church as a whole.

Parents who cannot afford tuition but wish to have their children attend can access tuition-assistance from the generous givers at St. Mary's.

Sister Regan, a sister of the order of the Holy of the Cross, has been with the school for 14 years: nine years as a teacher and five years as the school's principal.

Five years ago, when the former principal told her that St Mary's would be closing because of financial difficulty, Sister Regan stepped in.

'In a moment of desperation, I told him that I would raise the money needed,' she said.

Since then, Sister Regan has been fighting the good fight. She and others have been trying to keep costs down and raise funds.

'The school operates on about a $400,000 budget and we have been missing that mark by about $100,000 for the past couple of years,' Sister Regan said.

The school's source of funding is limited to interest from an endowment and tuition payments from students.

'We have been operating off of the endowment's interest for some time and that interest has nearly dried up, Sister Regan added. 'It's just not logical to begin to draw off of the endowment's principal.'

While the building is structurally sound, it doesn't help that it is in need of renovations, which will cost some $1.2 to $1.5 million. Most of these renovations include those required by the government to meet building specifications.

Sister Regan said that now seemed like the best time to throw in the cloth. St. Louis, another Catholic school in the Waco community, has recently decided to build new classrooms to accommodate its growing student body and there will be extra space. St. Louis will accommodate as many of the students who will be leaving St. Mary's as it can.

'We could maybe make it for another two or three years,' Sister Regan said, 'but if we waited until then, St. Louis would no longer have the room for the students who would be leaving St. Mary's.'

So, St. Mary's is closing on May 25.

It's been a daily routine for 53 years -- a common sight of school kids with their book bags, wearing their uniforms, marching single file along the sidewalk. They are going to their sacred place, a place to flourish and create a better future. Children settling into their classrooms; halls neat and quiet; children facing forward listening intently to what the teacher is saying, there may be one student staring out into space, but if he or she is, who can notice.

This is a reassuring image and this school must be a special place. But the days of children attending St. Mary's Catholic School are coming to an end. The loss may not be seen in the eyes of the children, but in years to come it may be seen in the eyes of the community.

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