by Moira Cullings
LEAVENWORTH — On Jan. 30, Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann traveled to Immaculata High School here to discuss with its students the decision to close their school at the end of the school year.
It wasn’t an easy trip, appropriately enough, since it was far from an easy decision.
But the archbishop wanted to explain in person to the people most immediately impacted by it why he had accepted the decision of the board of trustees of the Leavenworth Regional Catholic School System to close the school and to answer any questions the students might have.
In his opening remarks, Archbishop Naumann said three things must exist in our Catholic schools for them to be viable — faith formation, academic excellence and financial sustainability.
Although Immaculata was strong in the first two elements, the financial sustainability is where the school fell short.
“Despite everybody’s best efforts here in the community and the pastors, the parishes, your parents and all of you, this is what saddens me,” he said.
“You’re the ones who’ve been loyal and worked for the school,” he continued. “But in the end, I had to accept the board’s recommendation because I didn’t see any way for this situation to change.”
The archbishop then opened the floor to the students for their questions. Below is an excerpt of those exchanges.
Q: If it had been announced earlier in the year that Immaculata was closing, would you have tried harder to keep it open?
A: There have been a couple of efforts of that over this 10-year period, so it wasn’t like this decision was just made. A couple years ago, we were very close to having to do the same thing. Again, we told the board at that time they were going to have to raise a certain amount of money to make this sustainable. . . . As we discovered, the problem was deeper than what they realized, so even the amount of money they raised wasn’t enough to sustain the school for years.
The biggest issue wasn’t so much the money, as it was the enrollment. If we could grow the enrollment, if more families like yours were choosing this, that would’ve helped with the finances. . . . I know for some people it seemed like this was abrupt, but I can assure you it wasn’t.
Q: Why weren’t we told about the 10-year plan before?
A: There was no secrecy about it. The Meitler study 10 years ago was a very public event where everybody was consulted. And the plan was published, so there was no secrecy in this. Two years ago, there was a major effort [and] people knew that Immaculata was close to closing. If it’s not something you’re directly responsible for, sometimes people don’t pay attention. But it’s not that the information wasn’t there or wasn’t available.
Q: Is there any intention for a Catholic secondary school to be revived in Leavenworth in the future?
A: I can’t speak for the far distant future, but for the immediate future, I don’t see that as a realistic possibility. You would have to . . . invest in reviving the school and maybe rebuilding a new facility. You have to show that there’s enough appetite — enough enrollment there — that would really justify it and make it sensible. . . . Unfortunately, our demographics don’t show that. But demographics change. Could that change at some point in the future? Yes. But I don’t see it in the [near] future.
Q: Has the archdiocese decided what will happen to the building?
A: No, there isn’t any decision that’s been made on that. We would work with the community here, and what we would want is the best use of the building for the community, based again on how we would sustain and support it. . . . It really is the parishes in this region that would have to come up with that solution, with maybe some modest help from the archdiocese.
Q: How will Xavier Grade School keep going without a Catholic high school to feed into?
A: I’m not sure parents make the choice of an elementary school based on where [their children are] going to go to high school necessarily. . . . I think there is more of a capacity to fill an elementary school here with people who believe in it and want it, and I think it depends on having a quality program here.
Q: Will this decision affect our parishes, since people may decide to move to another region for closer access to a Catholic high school?
A: I think the vibrancy of our parishes depend on how well the parish life is, not necessarily just on [whether] there is a high school in town. It may affect the people in terms of where they choose to live but, if our parishes are vibrant communities, I think people will stay. One of the things we’re trying to work at is how can we have good transportation available so that going to one of the other high schools is feasible, so there remains an opportunity for Catholic secondary education for people living in the Leavenworth Region.
Archbishop Naumann brought the discussion to a close by thanking the students and staff of Immaculata.
“I thank you for your love for Immaculata,” he said. “I hope these last months are going to be the best months for you — and I hope I’ll see all of you at another Catholic school next year.
“That’s my hope,” the archbishop added, “and that will be my prayer.”