Citing financial struggles caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, church officials announced last week that St. Christopher’s School, a Catholic parochial school in Baldwin, would close at the end of the school year and not reopen in the fall.
Two other elementary schools in the Diocese of Rockville Centre will also close in June, said Sean Dolan, a diocese spokesman.
In a letter addressing parishioners, the Rev. Nicholas Zientarski, the pastor of St. Christopher’s church and school since 2017, said his farewells to the school, which has been a fixture in the Baldwin community for nearly a century, since its founding in 1925.
“Thank you for your commitment and support of our school community, especially during this uniquely challenging year,” Zientarski wrote. “I would like to emphasize that this closing is due to financial realities, not because of a lack of commitment on the part of our community. Thank you for your commitment to the Catholic education here at St. Christopher’s over the years and all the many sacrifices you have made for our church and our school.”
The past five years, Zientarski explained, have been financially challenging for the parish school. Since 2017, he said, St. Christopher’s pre-kindergarten through eighth grade enrollment had declined by 41 percent. In 2017, the school had 300 students, but en-rollment dropped to 179 at the start of the 2020-21 academic year. As it has declined, Zientarski said, revenue has also shrunk.
Although he and other parish staff have made significant efforts to manage costs over the past two years, he added, the continued operations of the school require more than $350,000 per year in subsidy support. During the pandemic, he said, operating the school both digitally and in person has exacerbated the financial challenges faced by the St. Christopher’s parish and the school, which the parish can no longer support.
“I know there will be a mixture of emotions surrounding this decision — anger, sadness and heartache,” Zientarski continued in the letter. “ . . . Please know that this has been perhaps the most difficult decision of my life and one that I did not make lightly. I ask for your prayers. Pray also for our principal, Mr. Timothy Gely, and our fine group of teachers, who are also broken over this decision.”
“Announcing this closing in addition to the announcements we made last week relating to the closing of Saint Thomas the Apostle and Saint Raymond’s is very, very sad,” Dolan said in a statement. “The Diocese of Rockville Centre thanks the dedicated and committed principal and teachers, both lay and religious, who have taught at Saint Christopher’s.”
The school’s staff members will lose their jobs, and students will be invited to other Catholic elementary schools within the diocese.
Dolan said the team at the diocese’s Department of Education and school leaders are aiding students and their families’ in finding other schools to attend, and Zientarski said the diocese is helping staff members find different job placements.
“We had a good team of really dedicated people, and I am deeply saddened because many of them have been working at the school for many years,” Zientarski said in an interview with the Herald. “We were a family that is now broken up, and unfortunately the legacy that the school had for over 100 years is coming to an end.”
Church officials said closure of the St. Christopher’s school is unrelated to the diocese’s decision to file for bankruptcy last year amid mounting costs because of child sex abuse lawsuits filed under the New York State’s Child Victims Act. The law allows people who allege they were sexually abused as children by priests or anyone else at the church to file lawsuits, regardless of how long ago the abuse had occurred.
The St. Christopher school “is a ministry of the legal entity incorporated independently of the diocese; therefore, it is not directly involved in the Chapter 11 filing by the diocese,” officials wrote on the diocese website.
Despite the school closing, Zientarski said, the church has been thriving with high attendance, and the parish will continue to hold normal church services and liturgies for the Baldwin community.
In addition to church operations continuing, the parish’s after-school extracurricular religion education classes will continue to be offered, and sports practices will be held on the parish grounds. Currently, 350 students are signed up for after-school religion education classes for the next academic year. During the recent enrollment period, an additional 150 students signed up for the after-school religion education classes, and the parish did not have enough space to enroll them.
“I am very pleased that more people than ever before are supporting and attending St. Christopher’s Church, and [many] more students have signed up for the extracurricular religion education program that is offered to children all throughout the community during after-school hours,” Zientarski said. “I am sad that the school is closing, but I am happy that at least the after-school religion program can continue, because I will still get to work with youth and continue to nurture them.”
Church officials said staff members would be offered the opportunity to apply for positions in other schools in the Diocese of Rockville Centre, and that any decision on the future use of the school building would be made by the pastor.
Many longtime parishioners shared their disappointment and sadness via social media last week.
Dolan said a special hotline and dedicated email address have been established for comments and questions: email@example.com and (516) 280-4124. Visit www.drvcschools.com for additional information.
"It’s very disappointing that the school is closing because we have been in the school for over ten years," said Lorraine Sclafani, whose daughter, Mia, graduated from St. Chris last year. She was part of the Class of 2020 graduates who moved up in the midst of the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic. Her youngest daughter, Ava, is in sixth grade at St. Christopher's.
"The school has been a second home for us," she said. "And I was on the school board. I’ve known about the financial struggles of the school.”
As a board member, she added, she was helping to attract more people to the school by hosting families during two open house events.
"But it wasn’t enough for enrollment," Sclafani said. "Covid was the final straw that caused the school to close. The feast fundraiser and the Coral House auction that St. Christopher’s normally has were both cancelled — we typically rely on those two things for funds for the school, so this was difficult.”
Ava is now looking at neighboring Catholic schools to attend.
“This school is a piece of my heart that is now missing," Sclafani said.