MERIDEN — Parents of Our Lady of Mount Carmel School students learned Thursday night that the decision by the parish and the Archdiocese of Hartford is final. The last Catholic school in a city once home to seven will close permanently after the last day of school in June.
Rebecca Gambardella was among the parents who attended Thursday night's emotion-filled meeting in the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church building. A day earlier parents had received a letter from the Rev. Thomas Sievel and principal Michael Frechette announcing the closing and Thursday’s meeting.
“I think parents really wanted to fight for our school,” Gambardella said. “We would have fought for it if we had known it was in such danger. It came as a shock to many of us. It came as a shock that our school was struggling financially this year.”
Dozens of cars lined the rows of parking spaces near the school and church off Lewis Avenue.
Families and school staff were greeted by Frechette and parish officials as they walked into the meeting. Reporters were not allowed into the gathering.
Frechette, a former public school administrator, is in his seventh month as principal of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. He explained the purpose of Thursday's meeting was to provide parents with information to help them transition to a new school — whether it is a Catholic or public school.
“What I am doing is making sure that parents, staff, students are successful in the transition,” Frechette said, hours before the meeting. “I want to make sure the students have the best final four months at Our Lady of Mount Carmel.”
Some Catholic schools in surrounding towns, including Wallingford's Holy Trinity School, St. Bridget School in Cheshire and Southington Catholic, will continue to operate, and were floated as options along with the public schools.
Frechette explained Our Lady Queen of Angels Parish, which includes Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, had recommended the school's closure to the Archdiocese of Hartford. Archbishop Leonard P. Blair had the final say.
According to previous news reports, Sacred Heart School in New Britain had also been slated for closure at the end of the school year. However, families were able to successfully lobby to keep Sacred Heart open until at least the end of the 2020-21 school year.
Frechette said he took the job at Mount Carmel because he wanted to embrace the uniqueness and challenges of leading a Catholic school.
“I have a passion for education,” Frechette said, adding he attended Catholic school in New Haven as a youth.
Gambardella acknowledged there were signs Our Lady of Mount Carmel School was struggling, but many families had overlooked them. For example, Catholic Schools Week was Jan. 26 to Feb. 1. Mount Carmel typically hosts open houses and other events during that week. But this year the school did not hold any events.
“People, especially parents, get caught up in the day-to-day stuff,” Gambardella said. “People didn't recognize what was going on. People missed that there wasn't an open house.”
Gambardella didn't place blame on the school's leadership, but pointed to a larger trend in Catholic education.
“I do feel like the Catholic schools and parishes are slowly dying,” Gambardella said. “The higher ups have to realize they have to focus time, attention and money to Catholic schools. That is where their parishioners are going to come from.”