Community, church and family support is what the folks at St. Mary’s say has kept them open for more than 159 years.
The Civil War was in the distant future when the St. Mary’s school opened in Canandaigua. The school has survived hard times during the Depression, an arson in the 1970s, and most recently the closings of Catholic schools throughout this region.
But its doors are still open.
“In 160 years, there are waves of up and down times,” said Principal Anne Marie Deutsch. “It’s like anything in our lives.”
St. Mary’s has been bucking the trends. The small school behind the big church on Main Street is growing, with enrollment jumping about 18 percent since Deutsch became principal seven years ago.
It’s a stark contrast to what’s happening over the county line. Two weeks ago, the Catholic Diocese of Rochester announced the closure of 13 of its 24 schools in Monroe County. Over the last decade, enrollment in the diocese’s schools has dropped by 45 percent, and the school system is facing a $1.3 million deficit this year and a $5.3 million shortfall next year.
“It’s sad,” said Deutsch. “It’s sad for the child and the family. It’s sad for my peers.”
Deutsch said St. Mary’s parents were concerned about the Jan. 18 closing announcement in Monroe County. “But they know that our school is financially and academically strong,” she said.
Of the 7,498 Catholic schools nationwide, 212 consolidated or closed last year. There has been an 11 percent decrease in enrollment across the country in the last five years, according to data from the National Catholic Educational Association.
Deutsch said the growth at St. Mary’s could be attributed to a population boom in communities like Canandaigua and Victor. New students are a combination of public-school transfers, ex-homeschoolers and new moves to the area, she said.
Keeping up with the times doesn’t hurt, either.
“We have all the accouterments of any other school,” said Deutsch. “I don’t think they lack for anything that’s in any other place.”
Those amenities include interactive white boards and computers in every classroom. Outside the classroom, there’s the chess club, the bowling club, the knitting club ... And about five years ago, St. Mary’s added sports teams at the junior-high level because school officials found they were losing young athletes to public schools.
Mackenzey Tallman, an eighth grader, plays basketball, softball and soccer at the school but likes St. Mary’s because “it has a high academic program.” She said her sister — a St. Mary’s grad who is now at Canandaigua Academy — is ahead of her peers academically. Mackenzey will attend CA next fall, which will be a big change from the small curriculum.
“I just love it here,” she said.
The school started in the basement of St. Mary’s church in 1849. Traditional blue and yellow jumpers, pressed pants and collared shirts still rule the halls, but gone are the nuns who once ran the school.
In 1854, the Sisters of St. Joseph came from Chicago to help the school, and in 1869 they joined the newly formed Diocese of Rochester. The current school was built in 1880, with additions completed in 1910 and 1957.
While St. Mary’s school is part of the diocese, it is parish-funded. Tuition, which accounts for about 60 percent of the school’s revenues, runs about $3,000 per student and is on a sliding scale depending on how many children from one family attend. For the balance, the parish contributes about 20 percent and fund-raising accounts for the rest.
The 211 students at St. Mary’s are not all Catholic. Part of the school’s curriculum includes mass and Catholic education, but students of all faiths are accepted. Deutsch said about 15 percent of the student body practices other religions.
“The parents like that they’re welcomed here,” said Deutsch.
Walk through the school hallways any day and you’re bound to see parent volunteers helping out in classrooms, serving lunch or monitoring recess. Deutsch estimates that about 1,000 community members help out in a year in school or at fundraisers. Some are parents or grandparents and others have children who have already gone through the school.
A family-like atmosphere is what brought the Coha family to St. Mary’s this year. Jill and Tim Coha had to relocate from Michigan to Canandaigua after Will changed jobs, and Jill said the family had plenty of Catholic schools in the greater Rochester area to choose from for their two children.
They settled on St. Mary’s because of the attention given to all students. Jill said the church and school community has made her family feel at home.
“I thought it would be miserable moving,” she said. “It’s been a very smooth transition.”
Wendy Cowan, St. Mary’s gym teacher, started at the school 26 years ago — right after college — and never left, even though she admits her salary is lower than it would be at a public school.
“It’s like a family,” she said. “I love it, I know everybody. They’re all my kids.”
The school has seen generations of families pass through its doors. Pam Negley, the school secretary, was the second of three generations to attend the school. Her father was a student in the early 1950s, she went in the 1970s, and one of her sons is in sixth grade. Another son graduated last year.
“It’s the top-notch education,” she said. “St. Mary’s is very close to my heart and my faith.”
Contact Stephanie Bergeron at (585) 394-0770, Ext. 255 or firstname.lastname@example.org.