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Jaffrey’s St. Patrick School grapples with declining enrollment

  • Father Wilfred "Bill" Deschamps and St. Patrick School student Claire LaPlante, 9, of Hancock during a Catholic Schools Week mass at St. Patrick Church.<br/><br/>Photo Courtesy St. Patrick School

    Father Wilfred "Bill" Deschamps and St. Patrick School student Claire LaPlante, 9, of Hancock during a Catholic Schools Week mass at St. Patrick Church.

    Photo Courtesy St. Patrick School

  • Cecile Provost, principal of St. Patrick School in Jaffrey, talks with students on their way to lunch and gives a tour of the school.<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea)

    Cecile Provost, principal of St. Patrick School in Jaffrey, talks with students on their way to lunch and gives a tour of the school.

    (Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea)

  • Cecile Provost, principal of St. Patrick School in Jaffrey, talks with students on their way to lunch and gives a tour of the school.<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea)

    Cecile Provost, principal of St. Patrick School in Jaffrey, talks with students on their way to lunch and gives a tour of the school.

    (Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea)

  • Cecile Provost, principal of St. Patrick School in Jaffrey, talks with students on their way to lunch and gives a tour of the school.<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea)

    Cecile Provost, principal of St. Patrick School in Jaffrey, talks with students on their way to lunch and gives a tour of the school.

    (Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea)

  • St. Patrick School's eighth graders conduct a science experiment to determine if water or soil emits heat faster.<br/><br/>Photo courtesy St. Patrick School

    St. Patrick School's eighth graders conduct a science experiment to determine if water or soil emits heat faster.

    Photo courtesy St. Patrick School

  • Father Wilfred "Bill" Deschamps leads a mass at St. Patrick Church attended by students of St. Patrick School in Jaffrey.<br/><br/>Photo courtesy St. Patrick School

    Father Wilfred "Bill" Deschamps leads a mass at St. Patrick Church attended by students of St. Patrick School in Jaffrey.

    Photo courtesy St. Patrick School

  • Father Wilfred "Bill" Deschamps and St. Patrick School student Claire LaPlante, 9, of Hancock during a Catholic Schools Week mass at St. Patrick Church.<br/><br/>Photo Courtesy St. Patrick School
  • Cecile Provost, principal of St. Patrick School in Jaffrey, talks with students on their way to lunch and gives a tour of the school.<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea)
  • Cecile Provost, principal of St. Patrick School in Jaffrey, talks with students on their way to lunch and gives a tour of the school.<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea)
  • Cecile Provost, principal of St. Patrick School in Jaffrey, talks with students on their way to lunch and gives a tour of the school.<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Alyssa Dandrea)
  • St. Patrick School's eighth graders conduct a science experiment to determine if water or soil emits heat faster.<br/><br/>Photo courtesy St. Patrick School
  • Father Wilfred "Bill" Deschamps leads a mass at St. Patrick Church attended by students of St. Patrick School in Jaffrey.<br/><br/>Photo courtesy St. Patrick School

JAFFREY — A longtime dream of Bishop Matthew Brady and the pastor of St. Patrick Parish, Father John McSweeney, was fulfilled in September 1951 when 18 of the Monadnock region’s young women arrived at the historic Stone House on Main Street to begin their freshmen year. The Catholic high school for girls, known as Our Lady of Monadnock Academy, was in its infancy with high hopes of providing a strong theological and moral education for its girls.

Jeanne LaBrie of Jaffrey — who more than 60 years later chairs her town’s Select Board — was among the first students to arrive at the Stone House, also the convent for the sisters who ran the school, in 1951. She told the Ledger-Transcript on Tuesday that she vividly remembers the classroom on the house’s first floor and the card tables that served as the girls’ desk space their freshmen year.

Who would have known then, LaBrie said, that the friendships she established with her classmates would be lifelong. “We were the very first class and to this day the group of us that still lives in the area goes out for lunch together every three months,” she said. “We’ve been out of school for more than 50 years.”

A new academic building next door to the Stone House, which today is apart of St. Patrick School, would not be erected until 1953. In that year, LaBrie, then a sophomore, said she and her classmates anxiously filled the new space, after outgrowing the Stone House with the addition of a new freshmen class under them.

The school would continue to operate as Our Lady of Monadnock Academy, or OLMA, for the next nine years with Sister Mary Roberta and Sister Kathleen Marie, both of School Sisters of Notre Dame based in Baltimore, Md., at the lead. But in September 1962, the parishioners converted the Catholic high school for young women into a Catholic elementary school for both boys and girls, citing financial constraints and inopportunity for boys.

“The parishioners who were supporting [OLMA] felt that the situation was unfair because their sons, or their friends sons, had no chance of attending,” LaBrie said, noting that many of the school’s female students were from the Keene area and not Jaffrey. “If the school was open to everyone, it seemed more logical that the school would receive greater financial support.”

The launch of St. Patrick School, a Roman Catholic parochial school serving students in grades prekindergarten through eighth grade, more than 50 years ago was a well-reasoned and thought out move by the parish, said Sister Cecile Provost on Friday.

Provost, who has served as principal of St. Patrick for nearly a decade, said when she started the job more than 150 boys and girls were enrolled. The school’s maximum capacity is about 200 students, she noted. While strong and steady enrollment carried the school forward for some time, Provost said the recent economic recession and demographic shifts have challenged the school’s financial situation like never before.

“We are a little below 100 [students] right now and we don’t want to keep going down,” Provost said. “We need to change the perception out there for families who believe this school is beyond their reach.”

Provost said during the past two years in particular she has seen children leave St. Patrick because of the economy; maybe a father lost his job and the family had to go live with relatives out of town, or a child’s parents lost their home in a foreclosure, she said.

In January, St. Patrick launched its tuition incentive program for new students. Through March 15, parents have the opportunity to enroll their children in the 2013-14 school year and apply a 50 percent discount to both semesters. The cost for a child to attend prekindergarten is $3,950 for two semesters. For a child in grades kindergarten through eighth grade who are sponsored by St. Patrick Divine Mercy or Sacred Heart Parishioners, the cost is $3,565. Non-sponsored children must pay $4,378. Tuition amounts per child decrease if a second or third child in the family is also enrolled.

“I have tried everything I can think of to show people what we have here. I tried to think outside of the box this time,” Provost said, referring to the tuition incentive program offered this winter and strongly supported by the school’s School Board.

So far, Provost said the school has been please with the community response. Approximately 10 new students have signed up for the 2013-14 school year and current students, excluding this year’s graduates, are all returning for next semester, she said. The 50 percent off two semesters of tuition, though, applies only to new students.

The Rev. Wilfred “Bill” Deschamps, minister of St. Patrick Church, said Friday that private schools like St. Patrick are today facing a similar problem that public schools are grappling with, and that’s a declining pool of school-aged children in the region. Deschamps cited the recent debate in the ConVal School District about whether or not to close one of its middle schools, Great Brook, due to declining enrollment districtwide.

“Enrollment at this time is a challenge,” Deschamps said. “You can’t change the biological pattern.”

When asked if a weakening of Catholic identity and waning leadership nationally have contributed to declining enrollment and Catholic school closures, Deschamps said the economy is the primary cause. He said membership at St. Patrick Church in Jaffrey has increased in recent years, despite lower enrollment at the school. If it’s a question of a family having money to pay their rent or send a child to a Catholic school, Deschamps said there is no question the family will pay the rent.

LaBrie, who graduated from Our Lady Monadnock Academy in June 1955, said St. Patrick has continued to be a reputable school in the region, known for both its small class size and the personal attention that educators give each child. But the cost of tuition in this economy, especially when public schools are free, is high, she said.

“Everyone’s pocketbook is rather tight,” LaBrie said. “Most people haven’t left their Catholic school for any reason but finances.”

By offering this first-time reduction in tuition to new students, St. Patrick alumnus Stephen Pelkey said last week that the school is providing families who may require financial assistance a chance to test out the school and see whether or not it is the best choice for their child.

“Life is about choices and no family has been turned away just because of the cost of tuition,” Pelkey said, a 1976 graduate of St. Patrick School and the chief executive officer of Atlas Pyrovision Productions in Jaffrey. “There are alternatives to assist families from discounts to family- and community-assisted sponsorships.”

During the school’s more than 50 year history, Pelkey said many families have participated in fundraising not only to offset tuition costs, but to provide ongoing support for St. Patrick’s teachers.

“With the decline in sisters and priests over the years, it has become more of a necessity to rely on lay teachers. Many of them have taught over the years, not just as a job they needed, but a job they wanted for far less pay than offered in a public school environment,” Pelkey said.

Pelkey, whose three children attended the school in the 1990s and early 2000s, said his fondest memories of the school are the friends, teachers and parishioners who made his educational experience the best possible.

Martha Zimmerman of Keene, who graduated with LaBrie in 1955 from Our Lady Monadnock Academy, said Tuesday she remembers climbing Mount Monadnock at the end of her freshman year and descending it in the pouring rain. She also remembers the vehicle she rode in with her fellow students every morning from Keene to Jaffrey, no matter the weather conditions.

“We were a very close-knit group,” Zimmerman said. “Sometimes the girls from Keene would stay over with their friends in Jaffrey and vice versa.”

In her senior year, Zimmerman said her class took their senior trip to Washington, D.C., and engaged in major fundraising efforts ahead of time to ensure that every girl could take part. The girls collected old newspapers, going from house to house, and arranged to have them taken to a large paper mill in Hinsdale, she recalled.

“Some of the girls would follow the truck in a car and help unload all of that paper at the mill,” Zimmerman said. “And, guess what? It worked. We all went to Washington.”

Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 924-7172 ext. 228 or adandrea@ledgertranscript.com. She’s on Twitter at @alyssadandrea.

What a nice story. The school is an asset to Jaffrey, I hope it is able to stay open.

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