After 70 years, Mississippi Catholic school announces closure

Published 4:21 pm Tuesday, May 17, 2022

A Catholic elementary school that primarily serves Black and Hispanic families in the Mississippi Delta is closing after more than 70 years, following a sex abuse scandal, declining enrollment and a steep decrease in donations.

St. Francis of Assisi School in Greenwood notified teachers and families Friday that it will close at the end of this week, the Greenwood Commonwealth reported.

It joins more than 200 other Catholic schools in the U.S. that have closed permanently during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the National Catholic Educational Association.

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The school in Greenwood was founded in 1951 and is run by the Franciscan Friars of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Province, a Wisconsin-based religious community that opened a mission in an impoverished part of Mississippi.

In recent years, the school in Greenwood has been tarnished by a clergy sex abuse scandal dating back to the 1990s. Paul West, a former friar who was a teacher and principal, was convicted in April of abusing a former student at the school. The Mississippi attorney general’s office later dropped a second set of charges against West in the abuse of another student as the 62-year-old former friar began a 45-year prison sentence.

Franciscan officials have come under criticism for how they responded at the time the sexual abuse occurred and more recently how they handled settlements with the Black victims, who received much less than Catholic sex abuse survivors have typically received since the church’s abuse scandal erupted in the U.S. in 2002.

The Rev. James Gannon, the provincial minister of the Assumption Province, told The Associated Press in 2019 that settlements with two Black victims abused by West were less than generous but that the amounts had nothing to do with the victims’ race or poverty.

Gannon said in a news release about the closure of St. Francis of Assisi School that “no one is at fault” for the shutdown: “This decision is the result of conditions beyond everyone’s control.”

The Franciscans said the affiliated St. Francis of Assisi Church in Greenwood will remain open.

This year, the school had 50 students, a drop of almost 60% since 2015. Only 41 had registered for next year. The school has about 22 employees.

The province said the school ended 2016-17 with a $35,000 shortfall. This year’s deficit is approaching $100,000, and next year’s was projected at nearly $175,000. Donations for tuition assistance, building operations and other costs have fallen from $168,000 in 2016-17 to $30,000 this year.

“We friars are saddened and disappointed to close down an institution that has been vital to the education and faith development of thousands of students in our Greenwood community,” Gannon said in the news release. “But steadily declining enrollment and diminishing resources — coupled with growing budget deficits and deteriorating conditions of an aging physical plant — have made it abundantly clear that the long-term operational viability of St. Francis of Assisi School is no longer a sustainable reality.”

Former St. Francis students said the school played a key role in shaping their lives.

“I think it taught me the compassion and love I have for people,” said Glara Martin, a 66-year-old Greenwood resident who worked at a nursing home 43 years before retiring. “It taught me how to appreciate people.”

Martin attended St. Francis School from second through eighth grade in the 1960s and 1970s, when the school included those higher grades. Her four siblings, two sons and two grandsons also went there, she said.

Martin’s brother, Mederick Hollie, a retired federal law enforcement officer who lives in Texas, attended St. Francis from first grade through eighth grade in the 1960s and 1970s. He described the teachers as strong role models who “gave me a great moral foundation to go through life.”

The 58-year-old said they taught him: “The biggest room in the world is room for improvement so you can do better.”

Martin and Hollie both praised the Rev. Nathaniel Machesky, the white Franciscan friar from Detroit who helped found the school and church as a mission to reach the Black community.

“No matter the color of your skin, he wanted everyone to be treated fairly,” Martin said.

Machesky persevered despite facing animosity and violence, and many Black Mississippians in the Delta converted to Catholicism because of his work, Hollie said.