Immaculate Conception School has been providing a Catholic education in Elkton, Md., for 93 years, but an era will end next month when the final classes and graduation are held. The past two months have been a whirlwind of emotions, according to two longtime teachers and principal Bill Schilling.
Enrollment last November, when the recommendation to close was first announced, was 113 students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. Schilling, in his second year, said the numbers were on an upswing for a while after his arrival, but then the school “hit a wall” because of a number of factors.
“There was nothing we could do. The reality is the numbers just kept getting lower and lower,” he said.
The circumstances do not make the end result any easier to handle, Schilling said. Even though he has been at ICS for just a short time, he could see why it is beloved by the community.
“As soon as you walked in the door, no matter what time or what day it was, you just got a great feeling that you were in a great place. You were warmly met by staff or students. Everyone was always happy. It was just a nice environment,” he said.
“You knew you were home, and you knew you were safe and in a good place.”
The longest-serving teacher in the building, Mary Gill, has been to weddings, baptisms and other events for the students she taught over the past 30 years. She has heard from some of them in the past few months.
“When one of my former students found out we were closing, he offered me a job. I thought that was very touching. I told him that I was retiring,” Gill said.
Angela Maxwell has been at Immaculate Conception for 23 years. Her family has a long history at the school and parish.
“It definitely hurts. I’m heartbroken to the core. I started as a young lady, a 28-year-old young lady, spiritually immature, and I basically grew up at Immaculate Conception School,” she said.
“It’s losing a part of my family. It really hits close to home. It’s such a close-knit community. It has such a strong faith base. I have history there. My dad went to school there; he’s now 70. My grandmother painted all the murals in the school. It’s sad to see that go. All of that is just part of who I am.”
One of Maxwell’s daughters graduated last year, and another is in sixth grade this year. Maxwell started as the aftercare director, then worked as an assistant in second grade. For the past nine years, she has taught preschoolers. Her first class of preschoolers are graduating this year.
She said when she started, “you could not fit another desk in a classroom. It was filled to the max.” She said the closing of the school is not a total surprise.
“We knew the sad reality was coming. You just wish you could hold on to it. ICS is very rare. It’s just a special little school. We have our own little world. It’s truly the little school with the big heart,” she said.
Maxwell began working at Immaculate Conception while Franciscan Sister Anna May McFeeley was the principal. She said Sister Anna May, who headed the school from 1986-2004, was the “heart and soul” of ICS. Sister Anna May died in 2012.
After the parish made the final decision to close in January, school officials turned to planning events to celebrate the school’s history.
“We were planning a celebration. We were going to invite alumni back to take tours, have a banquet or something upbeat like that. We had a whole big thing planned. And then all of a sudden (the coronavirus pandemic) came, and that put the kibosh on all of that,” Schilling said.
Schilling said he has recommended to the parish that they hold something once gatherings are allowed again. Gill said she feels cheated that none of the regular closing activities are happening, and she’s not sure they will be able to have them in the summer.
“It looks like this is it,” she said.
Gill, the technology teacher, has been meeting virtually with her students once a week, so “at least we an see their little faces light up.”
As for graduation, ICS hopes to hold some kind of drive-by ceremony for the eighth-graders, but those plans are up in the air. The last day of school for eighth-graders is May 29, with graduation scheduled for June 3.
The building has not been open since March 13, but Schilling has been there a few times in the interim to check the mail and just walk the halls.
“It’s kind of eerie and sad,” he said. “It’s a quiet building without the laughter of the students or the faculty, the camaraderie, the team atmosphere. It’s kind of sad walking through the hallways, to be honest with you. The reality’s set in that because of this pandemic, you’re never going to have that laughter and happiness and camaraderie and joy that Immaculate Conception gave us.”
At some point, the faculty will be back inside to gather personal belongings and close up their classrooms.
“It’s going to be very sad to close up your classroom alone, basically, in an empty school, quiet. It’s hard,” Maxwell said.
But despite the sadness that the school community is experiencing, Gill said people should concentrate on all the positives Immaculate Conception has brought to Cecil County since 1927.
“The family atmosphere is unbelievable,” Gill said. “We are truly the little school with the big heart, and I think we’ve left a big mark on the town of Elkton after 93 years. It’s kind of nice to know that we helped mold them.”