Catholic Sentinel photo by Gerry Lewin
Andrew Letellier just started his teaching career as seventh-grade teacher at St. Mary Star of the Sea School in Astoria.
Catholic Sentinel photo by Gerry Lewin
Andrew Letellier just started his teaching career as seventh-grade teacher at St. Mary Star of the Sea School in Astoria.
ASTORIA — One of the oldest Catholic schools in Oregon will close at the end of the academic year because of money shortfall.  

St. Mary, Star of the Sea School here opened in 1895. It has struggled financially for years, with parishioners sacrificing to keep it on the edge of viability. Many parishioners considered the school their top ministry, but small town financial  realities prevailed.  

Star of the Sea is the last Catholic school on the Oregon coast.    

Parish officials say the impending closure is not the result of impropriety or mismanagement by current or previous leaders.  

Archbishop John Vlazny said his Jan. 14 decision to close the school was not easy and he calls it "a very difficult time for the families with children in the school."

Two councils of parishioners last summer recommended immediate closure. But the archbishop and Father Ken Sampson, the pastor, wanted more time to see if the school could be saved.

Officials say no sustained means of support emerged and raising tuition to the needed levels would put the school out of reach for most families in the area.

In a Jan. 21 letter to parishioners, Archbishop Vlazny urged the parish to celebrate the achievements of the school "in its long and admirable history." But he also asked parishioners to renew their motivation for evangelizing, which was the purpose of creating the school in the first place.

"As a faith community we know that in order to share our faith and shape our future we shall need to revitalize the parish religious education program, which will be more important than ever in assisting parents with the spiritual formation of their children," the archbishop said.

The archbishop said fundraising at the parish has been so focused on the school that "people forget that it has been only one of the many parish ministries which it is our responsibility to support."

The archbishop included hope in his message, praying that "God will continue to bless our Astoria Catholic community and, through the inner-workings of the Holy Spirit, lead us into new and even more effective ways of nurturing and strengthening our faith as we continue to carry out our baptismal calling as disciples in mission together."

The decision to close comes after consultations with Father Sampson, Principal Tom Rogozinski, the superintendent of Catholic schools, the archdiocesan finance office and councils at the archdiocese and parish.

"We recognize that this announcement of school closure may be met with a range of emotions (anger, resignation, surprise, shock, etc.) all of which are valid and understandable," said a letter to parishioners and parents from Father Sampson and Rogozinski. They expressed hope that the parish and school community will "embrace a spirit of unity and togetherness in this very trying time."

In recent years, the school has run an annual budget deficit of $100,000 to $250,000. Bequests, grants, endowment principal and parishioner gifts provided a respite, but not a cure. Even those sources began to shrink in the past two years. The parish was sending 60 percent of its resources to the school, triple the archdiocese's recommended maximum.

New fundraising initiatives, student-teachers from the University of Portland and a property sale are helping the school finish out the year, but could not bring long-term sustainability.

"Every opportunity has been explored to make the school viable," says the letter from the priest and the principal.

Catholic schools, especially those in small towns and inner cities, have a hard time surviving. The National Catholic Education Association says more than 1,600 U.S.Catholic schools closed in the past decade, with a 33 percent enrollment drop in that period. The economy is largely to blame. Clatsop County has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state.