'A solemn day for sure'
New London — The sounds of footsteps in the hallways, of children laughing, of morning prayers all fell silent Friday following St. Mary Star of the Sea School's final day of classes.
"It has been very difficult," said Principal Anne Tortora, who has led the school for two years. "It has been difficult for the children. Some have been here since kindergarten. It's like getting the rug pulled out from underneath them. It's jarring to them."
The 120-year-old Roman Catholic elementary school and the Diocese of Norwich's only inner-city school was forced to shut its doors because maintaining the institution was no longer financially feasible and enrollment had been on the decline.
There were 105 students enrolled in this year's kindergarten through eighth grade, and that had been expected to increase to 121 in the upcoming academic year, Tortora said. At one time, the Huntington Street school taught close to 250 students.
The sense of finality weighed heavily as teachers packed up their things for the last time Friday.
"It's a solemn day for sure," said Samantha Batch, a first-grade teacher. "We've been trying to keep it together and light-hearted for the children."
Batch has been teaching at the school for seven years. Her brother, sister and mother-in-law all attended St. Mary. "It's been like a family for me," she said. "It's disheartening that they had to close, that they couldn't find another way. This school meant so much to the community."
On Friday the staff tried to make the day as normal as possible. Lunch was held outside in the courtyard — pizza and soda. Students ate in groups by grade.
After lunch, Tortora showed the students a time capsule: a stainless steel, 12-quart pot holding items submitted by the classes. Photos, rosary beads, a statuette of Our Lady of Fatima, reading lists and a rubber duck were all sealed in plastic and will eventually be buried behind the shrine of St. Mary, not to be opened for 20 years.
The Rev. Robert Washabaugh, pastor at St. Mary, blessed the time capsule. "We say a prayer for the people that will open this gift," he said. "... that the memories put in the ground will help them to grow and to learn and to be close to Christ."
St. Mary was founded by the Sisters of Mercy with the purpose of educating students and giving them a moral compass. Tortora said that for many of her students and their families, receiving a Catholic education was part of their way of life.
"I've always said our students aren't angels, but they are saints in training," Tortora said. "There's a sense of community here that you just can't match."
Randa Morris said she moved from Groton to New London so that her daughters, Mattison and Lilly, could attend St. Mary. She herself is a 1989 graduate.
"My daughters have grown and become part of this family," Morris said. "I wanted my children to get a Catholic education. With this school closing, it feels like the beginning of the end for Catholic education."
The city still has a Catholic parochial school, St. Joseph, which Morris' daughters and some other St. Mary students will attend in the fall.
Tortora said St. Mary and its students represented a cross-section of the "real world."
"The cultural and economic diversity of the students here will help them adjust to any setting," she said.
Finding a new school has been difficult for some. The problem, Tortora said, is that many of the lotteries for schools such as ISAAC and the Regional Multicultural Magnet School are closed, so these schools are no longer an option.
St. Mary parish and school combined owe approximately $750,000 to the diocese. Michael Strammiello, director of communications for the diocese, said the decision to close the school was a difficult one. He said the school had become a casualty of the economy.
"St. Mary was a great school for generations," said Strammiello. "It has always been a school that cared about the community, has been responsive to the changes in the community and has welcomed students of all faiths."
Strammiello said the church will continue to help the community, and Catholic Charities will maintain its presence in the city.
As the final minutes of the school day approached, teachers took turns reading Dr. Seuss' book, "Oh, the Places You'll Go" to the students, who sat quietly on the ground.
Some teachers and parents held back tears as they read passages that mentioned hope for the future and advised to not fear the unknown.
After the book was read, students briefly separated into their class grades and hugged their teachers for the final time.
The students and teachers quickly regrouped, held hands, formed a large circle and recited the prayer, "Glory Be to the Father."
And with that, 120 years of history came to a close.
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