Father Joseph McCaffrey’s plan to close Holy Spirit Academy and send the school's students to the Kennedy Catholic Family of Schools for students’ continued education is official.

Bishop David Zubik of the Diocese of Pittsburgh announced his approval Thursday of the strategy, which includes Holy Spirit Parish providing $2,000 in tuition aid for each student going to St. John Paul II Elementary School, in Hermitage, part of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Erie.

The move is a departure from the Diocese of Pittsburgh’s efforts to regionalize struggling Catholic schools within its own borders. Under those guidelines, Holy Spirit students likely would have had to travel to Butler or Beaver County — much further away than Hermitage — to continue their education.

In granting his permission for Holy Spirit Academy, formerly St. Vitus School, to close at the end of the 2020-21 school year, Zubik said he wants “to recognize the wonderful contributions of teachers and staff at Holy Spirit Academy who dedicated themselves to educating our children in the Catholic faith, and the many school families and parishioners who have worked diligently over the past number of years in support of the school.”

The bishop said that he is granting permission for the school to close “with the clear understanding that the children Holy Spirit Parish parishioners will be encouraged and assisted in every way possible to attend another available Catholic school,” whether that be St. John Paul II or Catholic elementary schools within the Diocese of Pittsburgh.

However, a news release from the diocese noted that 40 students from Holy Spirit Parish are already attending Kennedy Catholic schools.

McCaffrey and Mark Ferrara, president of Kennedy Catholic schools, have worked to establish a partnership between their two schools.

Under McCaffrey’s plan, the $2,000-per-student tuition assistance would be taken from funds assessed on each parish by the Diocese of Pittsburgh for the support of Catholic education and provided to St. John Paul II, even though it is in a different diocese. Money over and above the tuition aid would be sent to the Diocese of Pittsburgh, and Holy Spirit Parish would continue to participate in the elementary schools governance structure being established in the diocese’s northwest region.

Ferrara said last month that clergy from Holy Spirit Parish would be welcome at St. John Paul II, and he plans to add representatives from the parish to his oversight councils. Holy Spirit teachers also would be considered for staff openings.

“I’m glad that the bishop saw the wisdom in it and is allowing for it,” McCaffrey said Thursday. “Times are different. We can’t live in the past. We have to live in the present. The people who built that parish and that school, and all the other parishes and schools that we’ve had, they were perfect for their time. We have to do what’s right for our time.”

Holy Spirit Academy has struggled for several years to keep its enrollment and funding at acceptable levels, even cutting back from eight grades to six.

“It’s more than just money, it’s putting kids in the seats,” McCaffrey said. “It’s not fair to the kids, and we can’t justify paying teachers all these salaries for three kids in a classroom. But I still want to give our people an opportunity for Catholic education.

“It is a sacrifice for people if they want to have a Catholic education, that’s just part of it. But anything worthwhile is worth sacrificing for. I tried to do it so that if they really want to go, I’m paying over half of the tuition, and all the money they’re going to save on tuition, they could put a small portion of that toward transportation, if need be.”

Michelle Peduto, director of schools for the Diocese of Pittsburgh, believes that while closing Holy Spirit is a tough call, it is also the right one.

“The school has a 113-year legacy in New Castle, and it is the last Catholic school in Lawrence County,” she said. “The decision is truly bittersweet for all involved. Father McCaffrey and many in his faith community tried very hard to keep the building open. I applaud their hard work and creative thinking to support the children.”

For now, McCaffrey said, the school building will remain open, even after classes are dismissed for the final time.

“We need the space to do our faith formation, the religious education for the kids that are in public school,” he said. “We need that space and those classrooms, so we will be using it for that as we move forward.

“But we’re still looking at what is the best way to divest ourselves of what we don’t need (from the 2019 merger that combined seven parishes into one) and to put together a suitable plan for the parish for the future.”

Moreover, parishioners also can expect fundraising targeted for Catholic education to continue, even when the school closes.

“We have a golf outing raising money, we also have a raffle on a four-wheeler — that still goes on because we still have funding that we have to do,” McCaffrey said. “We still have a lot of bills to pay in the closure of the school, we have to pay the teachers clear to August, and we still have the funding that we’re offering to those who are going forward.

“People should realize that we’re still going to be doing fundraising, and the funds are following our kids.”

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