CHAMPLAIN — A donation of $50,000 to keep St. Mary’s Academy open was rejected at a recent meeting.
The session at St. Mary’s Church on Friday was called by parents and school officials; St. Mary’s Parish pastor, the Rev. James Delbel, and Parish Council members were asked to attend.
“The parish office and Father Delbel were sort of blind-sided by this meeting,” said Parish Council President Chris Trombley.
“All we could do on the Parish Council side and on Father Delbel’s side was react to that meeting and decide if we were going to go or not.”
Calvin Castine of Home Town Cable public access recorded the session and made it available to the Press-Republican to view what happened.
At the session, Delbel explained how the decision to close the school came about.
He recounted the meeting he and members of the Parish Council had with the Most Rev. Terry LaValley, bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Ogdensburg, on Friday, June 29.
There, the priest said, the bishop laid out four conditions that would have to be met in order for the parochial school in the Village of Champlain to remain open.
“We left that meeting thinking that we had won a great victory,” Delbel told a crowd of parents, children and school staff. “Within 10 minutes after calling here and telling people that we were going to open next year — but that there would be conditions — I was told that this $50,000 donation had been withdrawn.”
The loss of that donation meant the parish would have to borrow money to keep the academy open, the pastor said. He acknowledged that enrollment was up, but not where it would have to be to sustain the school.
“I promised the parish, (which) holds that debt, that if I ever had to borrow more money that I would close the school.
“On Monday (July 2), I closed the school,” Delbel said. “I was the one to close it.”
Another condition had been that fundraising should take place for both academy and church under parish oversight; the two had been separate before.
“This is not the intention to steal any money from the school,” Delbel said, responding to some scuttlebutt heard around the parish.
Numerous people spoke following Delbel’s remarks, many extolling the virtues of the school, which served children ages 3 through sixth grade, and Catholic education in general.
They also expressed their stunned dismay over the sudden closure; some disagreed with Delbel’s explanation of the finances that drove the decision.
‘SCHOOL IS CLOSED’
Then a soft-spoken man rose and asked to speak.
Eric Huberdeau is the father of three St. Mary’s students, ages 3, 7 and 9, and he brought along a newborn in a baby stroller. He asked how much money the school required to stay open.
“I’m going to make you a personal check for $50,000, and the school’s going to reopen,” Huberdeau said.
The Napierville, Quebec, man — who is not the person who’d decided not to give the earlier $50,000 — said church leadership needs to listen to the people, sweeping an arm to indicate the crowd there.
There are parishioners, Trombley said, who want the school closed.
Cathy Ryan, who with her family worked hard to raise money for the institution for many years, said she is one of them.
“The school isn’t making it anymore,” she said.
Voices were raised, and Trombley told the speakers to remember where they were, in a church. And he stepped up to the podium on the altar.
“Here’s the deal,” he said. “The school is closed.
“The meeting is over.”
He asked that anyone wishing to continue the discussion do so outside, in front of the church.
“It’s over? After I ask one specific, good question?” a bewildered Huberdeau said to Castine and his video camera outside the church shortly afterward. “What is the money missing for 2012-2013? When you don’t give a number, it’s because you’re not missing nothing. I don’t think it’s a money problem.”
Trombley told the Press-Republican later that he shut down the session because “it was getting a little heated, a little confrontational, and at one point, it was just getting out of control.”
The decision to close the school, he explained, is a matter not just of getting past the most current budget shortfall, but is a matter of sustainability and accountability. With the combination of needed upgrades in infrastructure, ongoing salaries and benefits, and servicing the school’s debt, the writing was on the wall as to sustainability beyond the upcoming year.
“We’ve had a death that has happened within our parish,” Trombley said of the closure. “The wounded people are going to be the children.
“We need to start the healing process.”
Huberdeau vowed not to let the matter rest and said he will take his appeal to the bishop in Ogdensburg.
He also said he asked Delbel to lease the school with the idea of re-opening the it privately with the help of Amy Gehrig and other school officers and parents.
Gehrig, who taught third grade at St. Mary’s, said she is looking into creating a charter school that would continue teaching the Catholic values the academy held dear.
“We still believe in our mission,” she said on Sunday of those supporting that effort. “
Delbel told him the school would not be available, Huberdeau said.
“Like we say, ‘In God we trust,’” he said. “We’re going to see what he’s going to do about it.”
In a statement, the bishop expressed “deep regret” over accepting Delbel’s recommendation to shutter the school.
“Father Delbel’s recommendation came only after extensive consultation with parish and school leadership and with personnel of the Diocese of Ogdensburg. ... Particularly these last several years, (Principal) Sister Cordata (Kelly), Father Delbel, parents, faculty and staff have labored heroically to maintain the school in the midst of mounting difficulties,” LaValley said. “However, after much study, consultation and prayer, it was determined that the parish did not have the financial means to keep the school open.
“As bishop, and as one who grew up in the Northern Tier, this is an especially difficult decision. There is no better evangelizing means in the Church than a Catholic School education. However, continuing economic difficulties in the region, smaller families and demographic shifts all contribute to the decreasing enrollment in our Catholic schools here in the North Country.”
SEE THE MEETING
Today and Tuesday, Time Warner Cable channel 24 is airing the Home Town Cable video of the session and its aftermath outside the church. The show starts at 11, 3 and 7, a.m. and p.m., with the meeting broadcast about an hour and 45 minutes into each.
Also, see it at www.hometowncablenetwork.com.
— New Editor Suzanne Moore contributed to this report.