St. Thomas More Academy is set to close for good after this school year because of an unsustainable drop in enrollment. The announcement was made in late February, and the coronavirus forced students out of the building in the middle of March. The school’s 48 students, and the faculty and staff, have not been together in nearly seven weeks, a fact not lost on the principal, Rachael Casey.
“It’s a little bit demoralizing to think that even in a difficult time for the school that we’re not able to sort of cherish the remaining months that we still have together,” Casey said recently. “The thing that we talk about as a community all the time is the strength of the community and the atmosphere of the school and the fact that it’s a second home for our kids and our staff. Our kids would rather be there all day and all night with each other, and to know that we don’t have those extra months to soak that all in has been really troubling.”
Much of the spring semester was going to be dedicated to brainstorming ideas to enjoy the time they had remaining as a unit and to celebrate the school and its history, Casey said. They were going to involve current students and families, alumni, staff and the community. They wanted to acknowledge what the school has meant to the community since its opening in 1998.
“I’m sure that there will be a time when the school community can come together and celebrate St. Thomas More. But the time where that feels most needed and most important in people’s lives is right now, so that’s the difficult thing for all of us. We’ll figure it out for the long term, but we’ll be a little more scattered,” she said.
The impending closure has hit dean of academic affairs Ben Wegemer hard. He graduated from St. Thomas More in 2004 and returned as an administrator a few years ago. Telling students their school was closing was hard enough, and now those young people do not have a way to find closure.
“I don’t think there’s any way to describe the way that it feels,” he said.
One event that fell victim to the pandemic was scheduled for this past weekend. A get-together for alumni was to be held in the Bishop Saltarelli Gymnasium, and Wegemer said graduates from all over the country were supposed to be back on campus. That was one of the ideas that arose after the initial shock and disappointment, but before the pandemic.
“We were so impressed by the strength, compassion and resilience that our students and families showed after the announcement,” he said.
The closing was made public at a meeting involving Casey, Wegemer, diocesan superintendent of schools Louis De Angelo and Father James Lentini, pastor of Holy Cross Parish in Dover, which has administered the school since 2017. Casey said it was a sad occasion, but also “beautiful.” Several parents, she said, approached her and asked how she was doing.
The parent of one freshman, she recalled, stood up at the end of the meeting to express appreciation for how much work the staff had put into the school. The parent added that even if they knew last fall that the school would close at the end of this year, they still would have enrolled their daughter there.
“That was really powerful. I think the spirit of the school, even if people don’t know the story of its founding, is powerful, and there’s still some good there,” she said.
A supportive community
When word of the closing got out, Wegemer said he was flooded with messages from former students and families. Some of them came from his classmates. The messages were “a bombardment of compassion for the school and appreciation.”
“It hit me a lot harder and deeper than I thought it would,” he said.
He knew accepting the fate of St. Thomas More wouldn’t be easy, “but I think I underestimated the depth and range of the emotions that made me and a lot of other alumni and community members feel.”
Casey is a native of Richboro, Pa., and a graduate of the University of Delaware. St. Thomas More is the only place she has worked since graduating from college 13 years ago, and, she said, she has not wanted to work elsewhere.
“I’m not leaving now because I want to. I’m leaving because we’re not coming back. It is hard,” she said. “It brings up a whole lot of complex emotions. Mostly, I’ve found myself reflecting on things that I’m going to be missing about our school.”
Casey has found it strange to have to work on her resume. She added that answering questions in job interviews will be different because she is used to asking them. She said wherever she ends up, she’ll be looking to recapture some of the best things about St. Thomas More Academy.
While considering their own futures, the staff is still trying to figure out how the remainder of the year will play out. The baccalaureate Mass is scheduled for June 1, and graduation for the 14 seniors is the next day. That may not be in the gym because of the restrictions on public gatherings.
“I think it’s safe to say that the familiar experience of opening up our gym to hundreds of spectators and the community at large is not going to happen. We don’t know exactly what it’s going to look like. We’ve got a couple of different options ready to go,” Casey said.
The school is owned by the diocese. De Angelo said no determination has been made about its future.
Memories, spirit will remain
Wegemer said he hopes and believes people should remember the relationships they built and experiences they had at St. Thomas More.
“As difficult as it is not to be able to have a building to come back to … the fact of the matter is the St. Thomas More community is made of the relationships, and those are going to go on long after the doors shut.
“Nothing can ever take away the memories and those relationships. For me, there are two parts to that. As a student, your experience is made by the teachers that you have and your classmates. Whether your school closes or not, 20 years later when you come back, it’s a different place,” he said.
Students, teachers and administrators change everywhere. Buildings may look different. But in returning to Magnolia after working at several different universities and organizations, Wegemer said he found the family atmosphere had not gone away.
Casey said she will take with her the spirit of the school. She appreciates the story of its birth, how people came together because they wanted a Catholic high school in the southern part of Delaware, and they made it happen.
“I hope people don’t forget that example,” she said. “I hope that they appreciate that it was worth it. Even if it means we’re not inviting people back for future years, it certainly doesn’t devalue that lesson or that example. It doesn’t diminish the experience or the value of the education that anyone received.”
Casey said she hopes the school’s students and approximately 850 alumni appreciate how their lives have been impacted because of the effort of those pioneers. She would like to see the students and alums take that example and apply it to their own lives.
St. Thomas More Academy was always a community built on faith, Wegemer said, including the faith of the pioneers who believed a school was possible. He said the students need to understand that life is full of unexpected changes, and faith plays a big role in getting through them.
“Now, in this moment of most uncertainty about the future and the closing, still relying on that faith. The tough thing about faith is the moments when it’s easiest to lose it is when it’s most important to have it. We have to rely on that.”