ELSMERE — There were smiles, laughs and a few tears at All Saints Catholic School the last week of May as teachers and staff returned to the Elsmere school to pack up classrooms and offices for the final time. The school announced on the last day of April that it would not reopen this fall, the victim of coronavirus-related loss of funding.
Unlike the other two schools in the Diocese of Wilmington that are closing, St. Thomas More Academy in Magnolia and Immaculate Conception in Elkton, Md., the future of All Saints seemed secure when the pandemic forced education to go virtual. The situation changed, and the school’s board delivered the bad news through a letter on April 30. Online meetings were held the next day.
“It was very difficult,” said the principal, Mary Elizabeth Muir. “We did four parent meetings on Friday, May 1. The letter went out on Thursday, the 30th. In a typical situation, people would be able to come together. You’d be able to give them hugs. You’d be able to see them face-to-face. Maybe you’d have a two-hour meeting.”
Instead, each meeting lasted about 90 minutes. Muir gave credit to the board members, who were present for the entirety of all four sessions, and to the families, who were sad but not abusive.
“It was a very long day, but the people deserved it. They deserved our time. I know that’s how every board member felt. “There was no yelling and screaming and shouting and complaining. People were sad, were really sad. They just kept saying, ‘Thank you,” Muir said as she teared up.
All Saints Catholic School opened in September 2011 after Corpus Christi, St. Catherine of Siena and St. Matthew’s schools merged. Nancy Swayne, the administrative assistant, came from St. Catherine’s. She said the kids from the different schools became friends right away no matter where they came from.
“Kids are more adaptable than adults in this situation. The kids had no problems at all,” she said.
That’s not to say it was all smooth sailing, she added.
“The transition was hard at first because we merged, and it was very hard to do that at first. But I think it all worked out to where we all came together. This time, it’s a little different because we’re separating. We’re not merging again. This is done. That’s even harder than the first time,” said Swayne, who has worked in Catholic schools for 25 years.
All Saints’ business manager Sandy Still also was at St. Catherine of Siena. She said finding out that the school was closing through a Zoom meeting was less than ideal.
“There’s no finality to it,” she said. “If you knew you were going to close, you’d have the whole year. This is our last Christmas pageant. This is our last Halloween parade. But we were moving along, preparing for next year and then, ‘Boom!’”
Unlike other schools that are closing, enrollment at All Saints wasn’t the culprit. Muir said the number of students at the school this year was 6 percent higher than last year. She said she will remember the closeness of the families.
“I know a lot of people use this word, but the community is incredibly tight here. It’s very, very tight. Everything we do — we talk about memories and those things — I just enjoyed the time when we were together as a whole community,” said Muir, who is finishing her fourth year in Elsmere and will become the principal at Holy Angels School in Newark.
A number of school activities stand out for her. The first day of school, when the parking lot was filled with families, was special. “Trunk or Treat” was always a Halloween hit. She especially loved praying with her students and the assemblies when they would be recognized for their virtuous action of the month.
“It just spoke to me of, this is who we are. We don’t need a whole lot to make us happy. We just enjoy good solid fun and being together,” she said.
Muir also mentioned the school-wide prayer each morning and the students who would join her in the office for that.
“One of them is an eighth-grader, and for the last two and a half years, he has played guitar, and we sing in the morning. It’s so enriching that people share their gifts quickly,” she said.
Still recalled working in the after-care program, when the day’s work was completed. “I loved after care. We saw them after they were done school when they were relaxed and playing. We played with them.”
Muir and teacher Brandy Luce both mentioned the traditional “bubble parade” as one of their favorite All Saints memories. When the eighth-graders would leave school on their final day, the younger students would stand like an honor guard and blow bubbles for them.
“Everybody’s recognizing them. That’s a community event,” Muir said.
Luce was a faculty member at All Saints for just two years, but she had a connection to the school before that. She graduated from St. Matthew’s in 2008, three years before it closed and became part of the new endeavor. Luce’s graduating class at St. Matthew’s included students who had come from St. Hedwig’s in Wilmington after it closed a few years before that. She taught math and writing to sixth- through eighth-graders.
She said when schools were shut down in mid-March, it came during a long stretch without a break, so she welcomed the respite. But no one expected it to last the remainder of the school year, and that was only the beginning of the bad news.
“We only left for two weeks. We all thought we’d be back. When it was extended, we were upset, and then we found out we were closing.,” she said.
The next time most of them saw each other was this week as they returned to clean out their classrooms. Several families also stopped by to pick up items for graduation, which was held June 3 and included a bubble parade for each student as they left the parking lot. She feels for all the students who have to find new homes, particularly the seventh-graders.
“It’s been hard, especially for the seventh-graders. They’re losing their eighth-grade year, which should have been their last year. You just feel really bad for them,” she said.
Luce will be teaching next year at St. Anthony of Padua School, where some All Saints students will join her. Muir expects to see several familiar faces at Holy Angels. About 100 All Saints students have enrolled at other Catholic schools.