The end came at last.
After months of anticipation, even dread, the end of the story for Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary School in Elma came Wednesday, as it has for other Catholic elementary schools across the region in this and other years:
With tears and hugs, emotion and prayer.
“I feel sad,” Simon Lamparelli, 8, who just finished third grade at Annunciation, said in the school gym on the last day.
His mom, Marlene Lamparelli, put it this way:
“This is a really beautiful place. This really was a different place.”
More than 100 students, along with parents, faculty and staff, said a bittersweet goodbye to their Catholic school in a month when hundreds of other young students across Western New York are doing the same.
This June, 10 Catholic elementary schools in the area are closing – in Orchard Park and Amherst, Gowanda and Hamburg, and beyond.
Each one comes to the end in its own way.
For Annunciation, on Clinton Street, the end of a long history of education in the rural countryside outside Buffalo came with a final Mass for schoolchildren, hugs and farewells with classmates and teachers, and one last “Hail Mary” for the intercession of the school’s patroness.
The mood of the day was crystallized in a fleeting moment during midmorning, in one of the school’s classrooms, when Sister Marilyn Ann Dudek, the principal, said goodbye to students.
“Remember to read. Practice math. And go to church,” she told the children as she gave them bags containing holy cards, pencils and other items.
“Remember,” she told them, “God is important to you.”
In one classroom, a boy darted up to the blackboard and scrawled a message in letters printed in blue chalk: “I love you Sr.”
Elsewhere in the school, textbooks were stacked in piles in the gym and halls, bulletin boards were bare of decoration, and desks were piled high with projects and souvenirs. Some children and adults sported Annunciation polo shirts, sweatshirts and ball caps. In one hallway, a banner bore the motto: “Touching Hearts, Teaching Minds, Transforming Lives.”
Later in the final day, Dudek said that the Elma school was different from other places.
“It’s just special,” said Dudek, a Felician nun who served as principal for seven years. She said that there has been a lengthy history of education at the Elma site, dating from the 1800s. “The families are good families,” she said. “The children are so respectful.”
The end to Annunciation and the nine other nine elementary schools that the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo closed was a result of a decision that Bishop Richard J. Malone and other diocesan leaders announced in January.
Wednesday, Sister Carol Cimino, superintendent of schools for the diocese, said that the closings are not just a time for sadness, but an opportunity.
“There’s a tremendous loss,” Cimino said. “But we’ve encouraged them to stick with us. Most of the kids from the closing schools have enrolled in another Catholic school.”
Seventy-four percent of students affected by the closings have enrolled in other Catholic schools, she said.
“It’s sad in one way,” she said, “but it’s an opportunity to celebrate your past – to celebrate all the people who have gone through there.
Diocesan officials, in explaining the closures earlier this year, cited enrollment issues in the schools.
Cimino also pointed to enrollment Wednesday in discussing this month’s closings. The diocese has “a little over 10,000” students enrolled in elementary schools, Cimino said. High schools enroll roughly 6,000 at the present time, she said.
Besides Annunciation, other Catholic elementary schools closing this month across Western New York include another school in Elma, St. Vincent de Paul, as well as Fourteen Holy Helpers in West Seneca; St. Mary on the Lake on Route 5 in Hamburg; Gowanda’s St. Joseph; two schools in Orchard Park, St. Bernadette and Our Lady of the Sacred Heart; Amherst’s St. Leo the Great; Lancaster’s Our Lady of Pompeii; and St. Francis of Assisi in the City of Tonawanda.
The announcement of the closings caused an outpouring of sorrow throughout the region.
Parents at Annunciation rallied to try to save the school by asking the bishop to let them merge the school with St. Vincent, the nearby school that also is closing.
But their efforts were unsuccessful; in February, the bishop didn’t accept their request.
At Annunciation, Dudek, the principal, said: “It’s just difficult.”
During the final Mass on Wednesday, the Rev. Eugene P. Ulrich, pastor at Annunciation, told the assembled children that their school was “special.”
“You are the apples of our eyes,” he told them.
Some parents gathered at the parish for the final day of school spoke of their grief at the closing.
“Now my kids can’t go to the same school,” said Amy Dittmar, a mother of five who had two children enrolled at Annunciation.
“It’s been wonderful,” she said. “It’s a really nice, safe environment, really loving.”
Others spoke of their enthusiasm for what they called the familylike atmosphere in the school.
“The beauty of a small school is it allows us to create a secondary family,” said Kathy Fuller, whose daughter, Sophia, 7, was a student at the school. “It’s gone. It’s not available anywhere anymore.”
Sophia, who just finished second grade, said she felt “kind of sad” on the last day in her school.
“Because I won’t be able to see many of my friends,” Sophia said.
Parent Jackie Hassenfratz said that although sad, she was trying to look at the day in a positive light.
She called Wednesday “a new beginning.”