"When they speak of this work as a vocation, it absolutely is," says St. Monica's devastated principal, Lisa Hoban. "Our teachers have 250 years of service; we have two who've been here over 30 years. [Come September,] they will not have health care. They will not have anything."
The school named for a patient patron saint was never big, but this year's eighth grade had only 13 students, and only 17 seventh graders trailed behind. There's a fine line between small classes and an untenable educational model. After 96 years, St. Monica's crossed it.
"We didn't lack anything," Hoban contends, rattling off honors math, a science lab, and a $1.5 million renovation that remains partially unpaid. Nearby public schools are top-notch, but "SMS" offered teachers who saw students as family.
"The church," notes the Rev. William Trader, St. Monica's pastor, "is built on the backs of these women."
Eva Kondas loved St. Monica's so much as a student that she returned to teach for 36 years and always kept a stash of Jolly Ranchers for her charges. Mary Belle Laroque spent 31 years at SMS. Neither woman wants to retire.
SMS parent Rosemary Friedrich calls teacher Pat Wingerter "a Renaissance woman" who "knew everything about everything," from diagramming sentences to science. Nicole Pellegrino raves about Beth Bonnani's judgment-free "group talks" and projects where kids modeled their favorite saint.
Maureen McBride tells me math teacher Karen Smith met with students before school, after school, and at lunch, putting their needs above her free time. "These teachers did not stay for glory," McBride says. "They devoted the best years of their lives" to an ideal now leaving them behind.
With dusty resumés and stiff competition, some SMS staffers feel forced into a career change.
"What a waste," says Pellegrino. "This is their gift, to teach."
St. Monica's was supposed to merge with St. Patrick's in Malvern, but that school appealed and won the right to stay open, solo. After Hoban was tapped to lead a new regional school in Plymouth Meeting, she was urged to hire from those feeder parishes. So she found herself in the awkward position of being saved as her staff drowned.
Mary Rochford, superintendent of archdiocesan schools, downplays the doom. She says teachers not already scooped up have first dibs on any opening at any parochial school. Last year, 200 slots filled weeks before schools opened by virtue of retirements or relocation.
Parishes can pay to extend dismissed teachers' health care. Parents at St. Monica's already donated to a "Teacher Appreciation Fund" and feel frustrated shouldering the Christian compassion alone.
"The archdiocese clearly has spent millions to defend priests," notes McBride. "What will [they] do to help these teachers?"
At the last Mass, Trader prayed for "each and every person who ever walked through, sat, or taught in our school," thanking God that they could be "part of this community."
Afterward, the priest told me he's pleased that all but a few St. Monica's students will attend other Catholic schools this fall. If only the landing were as smooth for the adults who prepared children to confront change gracefully.
Contact Monica Yant Kinney at 215-854-4670, firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow @myantkinney on Twitter.