Families prepare for closing of St. Rose St. Mary’s School

By Bob Zyskowski | For The Compass | May 17, 2022

Many factors led to closure of school serving Clintonville, Bear Creek

Norbertine Fr. Tim Shillcox, right, is pictured with students and teachers of St. Rose St. Mary’s School in Clintonville following a May crowning ceremony May 5. The school, serving families in Clintonville and Bear Creek, will close this spring. (Janice Langenhorst | Special To The Compass)

CLINTONVILLE — Third-grader Emma Steinbring and second-grader Brooklynn Kluz dashed across the parking lot behind St. Rose and St. Mary School one chilly late April morning to search the parish campus during their school’s Easter Egg Hunt.

The “buddies” helped one another spot several good caches, then sprinted off together to find some more.

“Every young pupil is paired with a ‘buddy’ in an older grade,” explained Jennifer Falk, administrative team leader and dean of students at the pre-K-8 school that is a consolidation of the parish schools at St. Rose in Clintonville and St. Mary in nearby Bear Creek. Buddies do academic learning such as reading together, she said, as well as projects and events such as the Easter Egg Hunt.

This event was the final one for the school that was founded back in 1883.

Due to dramatically declining enrollment, economic uncertainties, staffing challenges and changing demographics, St. Rose-St. Mary (SSRM) will close at the end of the current school term.

Unthinkable task

“One of the best parts of having a school here,” Norbertine Fr. Tim Shillcox said, “is that on Wednesdays the kids take all the ministries at Mass. To watch the seventh- and eighth-grade boys teach the younger ones to dip their fingers in the holy water font …”

He didn’t finish the sentence.

“I never thought I’d be a pastor helping to facilitate the closing of a Catholic school,” Fr. Shillcox admitted. “I wouldn’t be a priest if it weren’t for Catholic schools in Appleton.”

Despite the melancholy feelings that accompany a decision like closing a school, the pastor of both the Clintonville and Bear Creek parishes is comfortable with it because of the decision-making process — seven town hall meetings stretched over six months. “In the end, it was one of the most satisfying things I’ve done as a pastor — to put the question on the table honestly, to have a discussion and to come to a decision.”

Bishop David Ricken will join the St. Rose and St. Mary School community for a closing liturgy at 8:30 a.m. on Sunday, May 22, at St. Rose in Clintonville.

Keeping their schools open is something Catholics in the Clintonville and Bear Creek parishes had been dealing with for 20 years, Fr. Shillcox said. “They’ve been wrestling with this for at least a generation.”

Before combining with St. Rose School in 2004, St. Mary School had held on even though the public school in Bear Creek had closed 30 years earlier.

Lower numbers of Catholics overall the past decade led to lower student numbers at St. Rose-St. Mary School, too. Enrollment fell from 70 to 40, and then to 30 at the beginning of the 2021-22 school year. Of the 30 pupils, only 11 were from families of parishioners.

“The (Wisconsin Parental) Choice Program kept us open,” Fr. Shillcox acknowledged. “Parents were interested in our small class sizes, but with that government program comes an inability to proselytize, so one of the questions was, is the school a tool of spreading the Gospel or not?”

Parish survey on school

Fr. Shillcox said he received some coaching from Green Bay Bishop David Ricken.

“I know that the bishop doesn’t want to close Catholic schools,” the pastor said. “His advice to me was simple: ‘Find out what the people want.’”

A mail survey of members of both parishes received a healthy 60% response, with votes to close the school outnumbering those who disagreed by a 20% spread. Fr. Shillcox said that 75% of the combined parish leadership agreed with the decision to close.

The reasons were multiple and plain to see, the pastor said:

  • A recent $75,000 operational deficit.
  • Loss of a principal and inability to hire a replacement.
  • Donor and volunteer fatigue.
  • Aging of both the general and Catholic population.
  • Declining numbers of those practicing the Catholic faith, hence diminishing numbers of children of practicing Catholic families.

Telling examples of these factors is that the public school district in Clintonville is closing one of its three elementary schools. Fr. Shillcox also said that, during the past three years, he has not officiated a single wedding at St. Rose.

With the Feb. 22 announcement that the school would close, “Nobody from the parish was mad, and nobody was surprised,” he said. “People were sad, especially some of the older folks. But there is the feeling now that we’ve turned a corner. There’s a sense of relief.”

Difficult decision to close

Michelle Reindl told The Compass that, with the many town hall meetings, surveys and other opportunities to weigh in on this decision, she believes the decision-making process included all the necessary steps, but that didn’t make the decision any easier. An alumna of St. Rose, whose own children attended SSRM for a number of years, Reindl is the president of the combined parishes Total Catholic Education Committee.

Via email, she explained, “The SSRM staff fought hard with all their heart to keep the school open for all these years and the students treasured their school, so it was an extremely difficult decision for everyone to make to close the school. I feel it was the financial strain and staffing shortages that had everyone stretched thin that pushed the SSRM community to make this tough decision.

“I think a majority of our SSRM community is sad and disappointed over this decision as this was a beautiful ministry for our parish that strengthened the faith of our students, parents and staff,” she said. The community will continue to provide the faith formation ministry for the youth and adults in the parishes, she added.

School community is like a family

School leader Jennifer Falk was hired as a first-year teacher 11 years ago and “fell in love with the small school and family environment.”

“While it is wonderful to have a small, intimate staff where we are like a family, it means more duties and a bigger workload for us all,” she said. “We have all put in a lot of work to keep our school here for a long time.”

Hired as the kindergarten teacher, over the years she’s taught pre-kindergarten and the primary grades before taking on the administrative tasks she handles now. Last month, she also filled in to prepare the school lunch when the cook was ill.

“The most difficult part of closing is losing those friendships and family-like atmosphere in our daily lives as staff members,” Falk said. “I am also really going to miss our students and their families. We have been such a tight-knit school for so long.

“Our students are sad about our school closing, but, to be honest, I don’t think it will hit them or any of us until the last week in May, when it is the ‘final’ week. It’s pretty much been business as usual here for the past few months, but as we are gearing up for May being our final month of school, we look forward to taking some time to celebrate the final chapter of SSRM.”

Editor’s note:

The Compass asked parents of current pupils at St. Rose-St. Mary School to share their feelings about the closing of the Clintonville school. Katlin Dilge is a third-grade teacher and the mother of four. She has a son in 3K and a daughter in kindergarten. The Dilges are parishioners of St. Mary in Bear Creek, where they live. Leah Wojnowiak, who is executive director of a newly created nonprofit in Clintonville, The Compassionate Connections Center, has three children. Her daughter is currently in sixth grade at St. Rose-St. Mary’s and her two sons (a senior in high school and a college graduate) both graduated from St. Rose-St. Mary’s. The family lives in Clintonville and are also St. Mary parishioners. Both Dilge and Wojnowiak responded via email.

THE COMPASS: What are your feelings about the school closing? Are you comfortable with the decision?

DILGE: I feel very sad that the school is closing. I was in third grade when the decision was made to close St. Mary’s in Bear Creek. All of the students in St. Mary’s at that time were such a close-knit group, that the age between us didn’t matter. Still today, when I run into a kid I was in school with at St. Mary’s, we still reminisce about the days with Sr. Jane. I feel bad that my children also have to go through the same scenario I had to live through as a kid. As a parishioner, it makes sense for the school to close, looking at the enrollment data, however, as a parent, I feel sad.

WOJNOWIAK: It is heartbreaking to see an era of strong Catholic education in our parish communities come to an end. St. Rose and St. Mary’s Parish Schools have been a long-standing tradition in my family, from my grandparents, parents, my siblings, myself, to my own children. As an alum and former educator for 10 years at SSRM, the school, staff and families will forever hold a special place in my heart.

I understand that a very difficult decision had to be made. This is not the result that I had hoped for. Along with many other families, I was actively involved for 15 years in various committees and fundraising events to keep the school community vital and sustainable. So after hearing the news of the decision to close, it has been difficult to come to terms with. However, through prayer, I am finding more peace in my heart each day.

THE COMPASS: How are your children taking the decision?

DILGE: My children are so young that I don’t think they truly understand what is going on, which might possibly be a blessing in disguise.

WOJNOWIAK: My daughter is sad that the only school she has ever attended will no longer be. She loves her teachers and friends and school community. She is understandably nervous about what a new school experience will entail.

THE COMPASS: Do you have a favorite memory of your own grade school days?

DILGE: One of my favorite memories from when I attended grade school was playing kickball at St. Mary’s during recess. All the kids in every grade would play and we never got sick of it. Now looking back, I find it comical that we used to pitch the ball uphill because we didn’t have a large enough flat area to play.

WOJNOWIAK: I remember the great connections the teachers made with students, the student/family activities, and the lifelong friendships created. One thing that especially sticks out in my mind was that, after many requests and proposals, my classmates and I were granted the opportunity to be the first-ever female altar servers in our school.

THE COMPASS: Have you made plans for next school year for your students?

DILGE: My husband and I have decided to send our kiddos to St. Martin’s Lutheran School here in Clintonville.

WOJNOWIAK: Yes, we have enrolled our daughter at Sacred Heart Catholic School in Shawano. We feel passionately about continuing the opportunity for Catholic education.

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