EAST MOLINE, Ill. — Parents and parishioners gathered to confront administrators, vowing they would find a way to keep Our Lady of Grace Catholic Academy open, following an abrupt announcement from the Catholic Diocese of Peoria that the school would shut its doors at the end of the 2021-22 academic year.
The meeting was held just days after the diocese broke the news to staff and students via email, with a local pastor saying money and enrollment numbers were to blame. Parents, on the other hand, argued they had been given no warning the school was in trouble and pleaded with the diocese to find an alternative to closing the academy.
The diocese made the announcement on April 8, saying staff and students at OLGCA are encouraged to transfer to nearby Jordan Catholic School or Seton Catholic School. The restructuring was necessary to sustain and reinforce catholic schools across the region in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, said the email.
"As we enter (into) the most holy time of the year with Holy Week, the Triduum, and Easter next week, the timing of this communication is not optimum," read the email. "However, it is the desire of the Office of Catholic Schools to be transparent in sharing this important news now that decisions have been made."
You can view the full statement here.
On Monday, April 11, roughly 50 parents, grandparents and guardians gathered at OLGCA, seeking answers from administrators. Several had heard the diocese superintendent Dr. Sharon Weiss was supposed to be there to address the students, although she never showed up, citing a doctor's appointment.
During the nearly two-hour meeting that followed, the diocese's associate superintendent and former OLGCA principal Jerry Sanderson fielded questions from the crowd.
He revealed that the decision to close OLGCA's doors had only been made the previous week and that the school had been struggling with financials and enrollment numbers.
"Obviously it breaks my heart to see what's happening," said Sanderson, who held the position as principal from 1994 to 2001. "Who knows, God's ultimately in charge. Maybe in the grand scheme of things, something will change in the future."
But the mood of the crowd was less reflective, with many saying they felt blindsided by the announcement.
"We were blindsided by this. We weren't told what we needed to do," said Clifton VanWinkle. He has a fourth and sixth grader at OLGCA. "We're family. It's like our family's being torn apart and told where to go."
Jessica Vervecke, chairperson of the OLGCA education commission, read a statement on behalf of the gathered families.
"We are heartbroken that our beloved school is closing after 98 years of catholic education in East Moline. We are left confused why the decision has been made and how it could be communicated so callously, without compassion or empathy to the students and teachers who just came out (of) Covid," Vervecke said. "We feel abandoned, unimportant, and not part of the Universal Church."
Vervecke's family has been a part of OLGCA for five generations, with her grandmother working as the school's secretary for 35 years.
She said while the other catholic schools in the area are "wonderful options" they won't be able to measure up to OLGCA, which is one of the only private school's in the area to offer full-day kindergarten. Other parents cited the low-class sizes and long-serving teachers as some of the irreplaceable benefits of the school.
"This is a very special place to many, many people. It will be a big loss in our lives if it goes away," Vervecke told News 8. "I'm really curious to know how you make an abrupt decision to end something that's been a part of this community for decades, in a week."
Eventually, Rev. James Pallardy joined the meeting to help answer questions. Pallardy is the head of St. Anne Catholic Church, the home parish to OLGCA.
He said in 2015, a $750,000 trust fund was gifted to the parish. Over the last five to six years, that trust had been used to pay for St. Anne's assessment to OLGCA to keep the school open.
"That trust is depleted after this year," Pallardy said. "With the continued decline in enrollment here at Our Lady of Grace Academy and the increase of costs for financing Catholic education, St. Anne's can no longer continue to drain our resources otherwise we're looking at bankruptcy."
According to St. Anne's parish bulletin, the church's Monsignor William J. Cleary Endowment Fund has grown to $628,662 as of Dec. 31, 2021. However, Pallardy warned that the school could not dip into those funds to help cover its financial needs.
"Once you dip into a principal endowment you're looking at the end of the school, as far as financing is concerned," Pallardy said.
The news came as a shock to most of the gathered parents and parishioners, including some who had served on the school and/or church's financial boards, who say they had never heard of the $750,000 trust fund.
"We had no idea that fund existed. There were parishioners here today who weren't aware that existed," Vervecke said. "We certainly weren't given any heads up to the fact that this fund is getting low and we only have this much money left over. There was no heads-up as to 'Hey, we've used this much money and we need you to make up the rest.'"
She argues that if the parish had known since 2015, plans could have been made to help raise money for OLGCA, pointing out how students, staff and parents raised $32,000 during a virtual fundraiser last year.
"Even if we would have known a year ago, there's something that could have been done," Vervecke said.
It was Peoria's brand new bishop that helped make the decision to close OLGCA, said Pallardy and Sanderson.
His Excellency, the Most Rev. Louis Tylka, became the ninth Bishop of the Peoria Diocese of the Catholic Church at the beginning of March and held his first mass on Sunday, March 6.
"He hasn't even been here," VanWinkle said. "How can you close this down when you haven't been here? Come here, talk to us, tell us what we need to do. And then close us down if we fail."
While the diocese hasn't commented on the specific reasons for OLGCA's closure, Pallardy and Sanderson said Bishop Tylka came from Chicago where schools usually need at least 200 students to stay open.
OLGCA began the 2020 school year with 158 students but that number has since dropped to 111 students, said Pallardy and Sanderson.
However, several parents stood up to argue those numbers weren't fair, saying the pandemic and online learning impacted enrollment numbers at private schools across the country.
"What Catholic school was marketing or bringing people in during the pandemic," questioned Vervecke.
Now, several parents say they won't transfer their students to the other two catholic schools, while others told News 8 they're considering leaving the diocese altogether.
"It's heartbreaking. It's not personable and it's non-transparent. They have no backbone to come face us face-to-face," said Michael DeSplinter. His oldest child is a fifth grader at OLGCA and he and his wife had planned to send their 15-month-old daughter to the school as well.
DeSplinter estimates his family has spent a combined 150 years, over three generations, at the school.
"We love the school. The school does a lot for this community. And now, just in the blink of an eye, it's gone," DeSplinter said.
He also admitted that his family would more than likely move across the river into the Diocese of Davenport if OLGCA could not be saved, saying he couldn't keep his family in the Peoria Diocese after the way they had been treated.
"We are a big family. It's destroying our family," he told News 8. "Absolutely tearing us apart. But we're staying strong, hopefully they will reverse it. But I highly doubt it."
Diocese officials told the gathered crowd that all they could do was write an email to the diocese superintendent, Dr. Sharon Weiss, as well as Bishop Tylka.
Not a good enough answer for VanWinkle, but he says he's willing to do whatever it takes to keep OLGCA open.
"We're fighting for our school. We're not gonna give up," he said. "How do you look your kids in the eyes and say 'Hey, where do you want to go to school next year?'"
Vervecke agreed, saying she'll go door-to-door asking for money if she has to.
"We feel forgotten and our children feel forgotten. And our children don't understand why this is happening," she said. "And we don't have the answers to give them which makes it even worse."
St. Anne and the diocese rejected News 8's requests for comment. Instead, Dr. Weiss told News 8 her official response would eventually be posted in the diocese's newspaper, The Catholic Post, but did not answer when that could be expected.
If you or someone you know has questions regarding OLGCA's closure, you're asked to contact Superintendent Dr. Weiss at email@example.com; Associate Superintendent Jerry Sanderson's at firstname.lastname@example.org; or call the diocese office directly at (309) 671-1550.