School's out -- forever -- at Our Lady of Mount Carmel

Teacher Joan Weeney leaves Our Lady of Mount Carmel, where she has taught for 35 years. DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Teacher Joan Weeney leaves Our Lady of Mount Carmel, where she has taught for 35 years. DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Posted: June 15, 2012

On the 2300 block of Third Street in South Philadelphia, rowhouse windows are decorated with Our Lady of Mount Carmel school spirit flags. Step into a house or local business in the area, and there will likely be a Mount Carmel graduate.

"People don't talk about neighborhoods. Down here, people don't speak neighborhood, they speak parish. ‘What school did you go to?'?" said Keith Gilbert, who graduated from eighth grade at Mount Carmel school in 1985. Gilbert, 41, is the third of four generations of students at the Catholic school.

On Thursday, Gilbert's children, fourth grader Moira and second grader Colin, ended the year as members of Mount Carmel's last class. Families and teachers filled more than half the church Thursday morning to watch the annual school awards ceremony and experience the tearful final moments of the 111-year-old school at the corner of Third and Wolf Streets.

"It's like the end of an era," said Gilbert's mother, Peggy, who graduated in 1961.

The shuttering of Mount Carmel's school was among the closures and consolidations a 16-member commission recommended in January as part of a plan to restructure Catholic education across the five-county Archdiocese of Philadelphia. The commission said the closings were necessary to stem declining enrollment and bring financial stability to ensure the viability of Catholic education. The original proposal called for closing 45 Catholic elementary schools and creating regional schools.

After appeals, the archdiocese trimmed the number of elementary schools being closed to 31. In addition, 21 other schools were tapped to become regional schools .

The schools of Mount Carmel and nearby Sacred Heart of Jesus parishes are scheduled to merge into a regional school at Epiphany of Our Lord on Jackson Street.

Parents and parishioners have fought to keep Mount Carmel open. They've held fund-raisers and monthly meetings, even hired a lawyer to appeal to the Vatican. A decision is expected by June 29.

Sister Rosemarie O'Neill, Mount Carmel's principal, said she doubted the appeal would help. The K-8 school had 136 students enrolled this year. Parents recalled a Mount Carmel school with an enrollment eight times the size of what it is today. Its teachers attribute the dropping enrollment to the pull of charter schools.

Of the eight homeroom teachers and six specialty teachers, O'Neill said, she knew of only two who planned to continue teaching; the majority will retire.

Thirty-five of the 49 years Joan Weeney spent teaching were at Mount Carmel. Weeney, who taught fourth, fifth and eighth grades, was planning to retire within the year.

"This was just a tougher way to go out," said Weeney, who will now devote more time to caring for her mother.

Students are distressed to leave the friends they grew up with, said Erin Kelly, 13, a Mount Carmel seventh grader. She asked to speak on behalf of the students during Thursday's Mass.

"The closing of this school leaves several people here heartbroken, especially the students here who can't finish where they have started," she said.

Joe Nelson, parish business manager and 1982 Mount Carmel graduate, said he feared closing the schools would turn away parishioners.

"These are your faithful, the people who go to Mass," said Nelson, one of five generations to attend school or church at Mount Carmel. His daughter Allyson is a fourth grader at Mount Carmel; his other daughter, Lauren, graduated in 2006.

His wife's grandmother, 101-year-old Ellen Keyser, lives across the street from the Mount Carmel parish complex. Keyser does not leave the house often, but she does attend Saturday Mass at Mount Carmel, Nelson said. Keyser's mother attended Mount Carmel parish's first Mass, held in Murphy's Funeral Home in 1896. As a young child Ellen Keyser, collected five cents each from neighbors to help fund expansion of the Mount Carmel campus, which started as a two-story brick building.

Nelson said his family was devastated by the closing. He said the most emotional moment on Thursday came from the typically stoic principal O'Neill.

"It is a heartache to see you walk out these doors," O'Neill said to students at the end of the hour-long Mass led by the Rev. Francis Cauterucci. "But we pray you will find the same love and care."

When she went to dismiss the children from Mass, O'Neill paused in the aisle, unable to leave.

"I don't want to let them go," she said.

Contact Dara McBride at 215-854-4904 or dmcbride@philly.com.

Inquirer staff writer Martha Woodall contributed to this article.

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