After 22 years, and with student enrollment dropping below 50 this year, St. Thomas More Academy in Magnolia will close its doors for the last time at the end of this academic year, according to the Holy Cross parish pastor.
“It is with heavy heart and immense sadness that I have to inform you that due to financial circumstances created by continued lower than expected enrollment, and financial burdens beyond our ability to bear, St. Thomas More Academy will have to cease operations at the end of this school year,” Father James Lentini wrote in a Feb. 21 letter.
The school currently has 48 students enrolled and was on target for fewer than that next year, Father Lentini said. The drop in enrollment was not due to a lack of effort to attract more students, the pastor said.
“We are grateful for all that has been accomplished by the diocese, parish, and school in providing quality Catholic education to students at STMA over the past 22 years,” said Lou De Angelo, schools superintendent for the Diocese of Wilmington. “Please keep the STMA community in prayer as they move forward through the remainder of the school year.”
When Holy Cross parish took over STMA in fall of 2017, the Diocese of Wilmington was preparing to close the school due to plummeting enrollment between 2014 and 2017, and a subsidy of expenses that could no longer be maintained, Father Lentini wrote. The parish took the school over in hopes that a local parochial identity would strengthen the ties between the parish elementary school and high school, he said, and numerous efforts to lower tuition and attract more students did not pan out.
Father Lentini said school officials are working on arrangements for families of students to allow their children to complete their education in a Catholic high school. He said a meeting with parents of current students will be Thursday, Feb. 27 at 6:30 p.m at the school and will include De Angelo, Principal Rachael Casey and the pastor.
The effort to open St. Thomas More Academy dates back to the late 1980s, shortly after the closure of Holy Cross High School in Dover in 1987. Those advocating for a new Catholic high school outside New Castle County worked with the diocese while it was being led by Bishop Robert Mulvee and, after his transfer to Providence, R.I., Bishop Michael Saltarelli.
A group of people worked for a decade to make the school a reality. The 20-acre plot of land on which St. Thomas More was built was donated in 1994. A capital campaign raised $1.6 million, and construction began in 1996, according to diocesan records. The opening of the school was announced in August 1997, and a year later the first students walked through the doors.
The academy opened as the second diocesan high school in September 1998 with 42 freshmen and sophomores. It welcomed all four grades in its third year, 2000-01, and had 132 students.
The school underwent an expansion in 2003, with the addition of a chapel, lobby, office suite, cafeteria, media center and fine arts wing. All of the wings and halls are dedicated to patron saints of the parishes in the area that were represented by the student body. Some students drove from as far away as Wilmington to the north and Berlin, Md., to the south to attend.
St. Thomas More experienced one name change. In 2007, “academy” was dropped in favor of “preparatory,” but that was reversed in 2011 during the tenure of Father Lentini as principal. Six years later, in 2017, administration of the school was transferred from the diocese to Holy Cross.
Athletically, the school’s athletic offerings were reduced as enrollment declined. Over the years, the Ravens competed in cross country, boys soccer, volleyball and field hockey in the fall; boys and girls basketball, swimming and wrestling in the winter; and baseball, golf, boys and girls lacrosse, girls soccer, softball, girls soccer, boys and girls tennis, and boys and girls track in the spring. This year, they have offered field hockey, volleyball, boys and girls basketball, girls soccer, and boys and girls tennis.
(Dialog editor Joseph P. Owens contributed to this article).