St. Mary’s High School to close after 150 years

St. Mary’s High School alums Joe and Susie Kenney knew that the end was coming for what may be the oldest high school west of the Mississippi River.

But they hoped the end wouldn’t come so soon.

This spring’s graduating class will be the last for the more than 150-year-old school at 622 N. Main St. in Independence.

“It’s a tough day,” Joe Kenney said, sharing the same sentiment as many families invested in the school. “It feels almost like a wake.”

In letters sent home to St. Mary’s families Wednesday, Bishop Robert Finn of the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph announced that a lower-than-expected enrollment projection for the coming school year is compelling the diocese to close the school and help families find new options for 2013-2014.

Remaining families had hoped St. Mary’s could survive until the fall of 2015, when the diocese expects to open a new high school in Lee’s Summit that will replace St. Mary’s and south Kansas City’s Archbishop O’Hara High School.

But enrollment this year had fallen to 102, down from 192 six years ago. The school will be graduating 27 seniors, and only seven freshmen had committed to enroll this fall, the diocese reported. Many other families in the school had also informed the diocese they were going to be leaving the school.

It was clear the school was not going to enroll the minimum of 95 the diocese thought were needed to be able to provide a meaningful high school experience.

“I know that the closing of a school, particularly one as historic and integral to a community as St. Mary’s, is met with much grief and sorrow,” Finn wrote.

The diocese told families that if they enroll in one of the other diocesan high schools next year, such as O’Hara or St. Pius X in Kansas City, North, they would continue to pay the same level of tuition as they had paid at St. Mary’s, which is the lowest among the high schools.

John O’Connor, the principal of both St. Mary’s and O’Hara, had already been making plans with both communities to find ways to combine the two schools’ traditions at the new school — St. Michael the Archangel High School — in 2015.

Now they need to speed that process, he said.

“As principal at St. Mary’s, I’ve witnessed the spirit here,” O’Connor said. “I want to do things for those students to help keep that spirit alive.”

The Kenneys, who graduated from St. Mary’s in the mid-1980s, had figured on seeing all three of their children graduate from the school. Their second child, a senior this year, will make it two. But their third will have to attend a different school.

Joe Kenney understands why the school has to close, he said, though he wishes the diocese had done more to modernize the school before enrollment fell too far.

“It’s a family,” he said of St. Mary’s. “My high school friends are still my best friends. It’s where my wife and I met. It is a faith-filled, wonderful community.”

Families will be invited to meetings with O’Connor and with St. Pius X Principal Joe Monachino in the coming days to talk about making transitions to new schools.

Several factors likely contributed to the enrollment decline.

The diocese’s market survey in preparation for its new high school plans determined that higher concentrations of Catholic families interested in Catholic schools had shifted south and east toward Lee’s Summit, spokesman Jack Smith said.

Diocese Superintendent Dan Peters, in a letter to priests and other leaders, noted that Cristo Rey Catholic High School’s opening in midtown Kansas City also drew enrollment away from St. Mary’s.

In 2008, voters approved a change in western Independence’s public school boundary that switched Van Horn High School from Kansas City Public Schools to the Independence School District, opening what many families likely perceived as an improved public school option.