Catholic school in city to close

St. Alphonsus-Basilica's 19th-century building needs $2 million in work

`No longer viable'

October 18, 2001|By Laurie Willis and Michael Scarcella | Laurie Willis and Michael Scarcella,SUN STAFF

St. Alphonsus-Basilica School, one of downtown Baltimore's last Catholic parochial schools, will close for good when school lets out June 5, archdiocese and school officials announced yesterday.

St. Alphonsus, with 202 pupils in prekindergarten through eighth grades, is closing because the 19th-century, four-story building at Saratoga Street and Park Avenue needs at least $2 million in repairs - money the Archdiocese of Baltimore doesn't have.

"Even if we had the money, we would not make the decision to put it into that building. It is ... no longer viable as a school," said Ray Kempisty, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Baltimore. "Child by child, the students will be given assistance to be placed for the next school year in other Catholic schools in the city, as will the faculty."

After a routine day yesterday, the school's 21 staff members gathered in the second-floor cafeteria, where they heard the news from Ronald J. Valenti, superintendent of Catholic schools. Parents, many of whom work downtown and enrolled their children at the school because it is conveniently located, were notified at a meeting at 6 p.m.

Stunned staff members sat quietly, listening to Valenti's concerns about salary and benefits.

"I hope I win the lottery," said Dolores Hayes, 64, a secretary for more than 20 years who had to be comforted by a colleague.

"I pray that you do, too," Valenti said, smiling.

Parents expressed concerns last night about the decision being cloaked in secrecy: "I was shocked," said East Baltimore's Rosalind Victor, whose two daughters attend the school. "They didn't give us a hint," added Victor, who works downtown, three blocks from the school.

"They never said anything," Maria Slowe said about the eight-member panel that decided the school's fate after a year of deliberation. "I would never have guessed the school would be closing. Now, I am faced with finding another school - and it's tough," said Slowe, whose 4-year-old daughter, Taylor, is in prekindergarten.

Dorothy M. Gillespie, 78, a school maintenance worker for 11 years, was shocked. "I don't know where I am going to go - wherever they send me."

A first-grade teacher who requested anonymity said she has "just learned to live in an old building" and didn't "see any problems."

But Principal Daisy H. Jackson said windows in the cafeteria - which doubles as the gymnasium and auditorium - are covered with plastic to help keep out the cold air. She also said the school lacks central air conditioning and gets "really warm" some days.

St. Alphonsus officials distributed informational brochures about Catholic schools in the city and in Baltimore County during the meeting with parents last night.

"Our intent is for the parents to enter the process with a ton of knowledge," Kempisty said.

He said school officials considered but decided against buying nearby vacant properties.

In 1847, the school opened as St. Alphonsus Halle in its current location, across the street from St. Alphonsus church, after relocating from Howard and Mulberry Streets.

The school's pupils, primarily African-American, live throughout the Baltimore area, and about one-third receive tuition aid from surrounding businesses in a Partners in Excellence program. Tuition is $2,850 annually.

Pupils will continue receiving PIE money - as long as they meet the criteria - even if they transfer to a school that is not in the PIE program, Kempisty said.

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