Susan Carroll loved Sacred Heart Catholic grammar school in North Merrick so much as a girl in the 1960s and '70s that when she became a mom, she sent her four children there. The planned closure of the school "is like a death in the family," she said.
The Diocese of Rockville Centre said its decision to shut Sacred Heart and five other K-8 schools on Long Island is "painful to all" but a bow to economic reality -- and final. Many parents are determined to battle on.
The diocese "can say anything they like. We're not going to be deterred from saving the school," said Terry Dennelly, a spokesman for parents at Prince of Peace Regional School in Sayville. "We're fighting it tooth and nail."
Many of the schools are cornerstones of their communities, institutions that date back as much as a century. Parents say the schools are vital vehicles for instilling faith in their children, keeping local parishes vibrant and even cultivating future priests and nuns. They bind neighbors, forge friendships and serve as a legacy from parent to child.
"The school is a treasure. It's a treasure to the community, it's a treasure for the people who are there," said James Connolly, a vice president and financial adviser for Merrill Lynch in Manhattan. He entered Prince of Peace -- then known as St. Lawrence -- in 1970 as a fourth-grader. Today, his son Owen, 12, is a seventh-grader. His other son, Dillon, 19, and a daughter, Fiona, 14, also attended.
Integral part of community
James Fallon, an attorney in Sayville, is 95 and says he was in the school's first class when it opened in 1921. He sent his four sons there, too. The school "was a very important part of my life as I was growing up," he said. It is "very much an integral part of the community, there's no question about that. I hate to see the school go."
Days before Christmas, diocese officials met with principals and parent representatives to tell them the decision was final. That sparked more pledges to keep the schools open. Parents say they will step up vigils, rallies, petition drives and, at Sacred Heart, a campaign dubbed "Empty School, Empty Envelope" to withhold weekly donations at Sunday Masses.
Bishop William Murphy, spiritual head of the diocese, describes the closings as unavoidable because of declining enrollment. He says the diocese's strategic plan, adopted after an 18-month study, is intended to strengthen the overall Catholic education system on Long Island, which would be left with 47 grammar schools after June. Nearly 1,000 students will be affected by the closings, according to diocesan figures. In the 2010-11 school year, 19,261 students were enrolled in K-8 Catholic schools.
"To all you children whose school is closing this coming June, I can only say I am sorry," Murphy wrote in the Long Island Catholic. "But I also can tell you that I wanted to make all these changes at once so that I can do my best to see that no other school closes so long as I am your bishop. The closings are painful to all but especially you children and your parents."
Diocesan spokesman Sean Dolan said, "We realize that these are good and faithful Catholics committed to Catholic education. [But] for the system to thrive, unfortunately there had to be some closings."
The other schools to be closed are: St. Ignatius Loyola School in Hicksville, St. Catherine of Sienna School in Franklin Square, St. John Baptist De LaSalle Regional School in Farmingdale and Our Lady of Perpetual Help School in Lindenhurst. St. Ignatius was opened in 1907 and is one of the oldest Catholic grammar schools on Long Island.
Carroll said if Sacred Heart closes, "the parish is going to be so drastically diminished."
The school left an indelible mark on her. Carroll, 52, recalled that as a shy sixth-grader, she was stunned when her teacher selected her as narrator for the class show, a retrospective of music in American history. The night of the show, she stood before 1,000 people and performed flawlessly.
She said neighbors later remarked to her mother, "I can't believe that was Sue up there." From that day on, "I had no qualms about speaking in front of 1,000 or 1,200 people," she said. "It gave me a real sense of confidence."
Carroll and others said the school has a tradition of academic excellence that surpasses most other Catholic grammar schools on Long Island. Since 2002, nine of its graduates have gone on to become valedictorian, salutatorian, "most outstanding graduate" or student with the highest grade average.
Carroll's three daughters all went on to become either valedictorian or "outstanding graduate" at Kellenberg Memorial High School in Uniondale, and developed a social conscience that took root at Sacred Heart, she said. Christine, for instance, now 27, spent two years teaching science in a Jesuit-run grammar school in the South Bronx, earning $60 a week.
"It's all stemming from the foundation they got at Sacred Heart," said Carroll, whose son, John, 10, is a fifth-grader there. "It's almost as if our school should be a model for excellence for other Catholic schools instead of getting closed."
At a time when vocations to religious life are rare, Sacred Heart has also produced a priest and a seminarian in the past two decades.
Parents help out
The parents fighting the closure assert Sacred Heart is essentially operating in the black, and they have shown a willingness to dig into their own pockets to help keep it that way. They raised $125,000 last year and almost $200,000 the year before, including money to convert an auditorium into an impressive gym.
While numbers have steadily declined for years, the parents say they see signs of hope with strong enrollment in the school's nursery and pre-K programs and the expansion of kindergarten from one to two classes this year.
The diocese did not respond to questions on Sacred Heart's balance sheets. But Dolan said the decision to close the six schools -- which, like all the diocese's schools, get 15 percent of their operating budgets from the diocese -- "was made after a comprehensive review of each school . . . These schools have been monitored over a multiyear period due to declining enrollment trends."
The diocese's strategic education plan "is not simply about money or fiscal resources of any single school . . . It's about the long-term sustainability of the Catholic elementary school system in this diocese," Dolan said.
He added that neighboring schools where the parents can send their children are also of high quality.
Garden City attorney Patrick McGrory is not swayed. He attended Sacred Heart along with four of his siblings and now sends his sons there, fifth-grader Aidan, 10, and kindergartner Kevin, 6.
Sacred Heart played an integral role in shaping his values, work ethic and educational foundation, McGrory said. "The school made me who I am," he said. "It's where it all started for me. It's a special place."