Oelwein’s historic Sacred Heart School will officially close its doors at the end of this school year. Father Ray Atwood broke the news to the teaching staff at the end of the school day on Friday, Jan. 10, and then to members of the parish at both Saturday night and Sunday morning masses.
“As you can imagine, it was a very sobering moment for all of us,” Fr. Atwood said in a phone interview on Sunday.
Fr. Atwood said there were several consultations and discussions with the parish school board, pastoral council, Archdiocese of Dubuque, and parish individuals, regarding the fate of the 116-year-old school.
“After looking at enrollment numbers of this year compared with past years, costs of education which are on the increase and demographics of the parish and community, we do not believe we can continue to sustain the school,” he said.
The school has seen enrollment drop over the past decade and has been unable to stem the tide of the steady decline in student population.
“We need both students and funds to support the mission of the school, which is to provide a quality education in a Catholic environment. We need children and financial resources, but we do not have that anymore,” Fr. Atwood said. “There was a variety of options presented and this is the most sound decision that could be made.”
On a positive note, Fr. Atwood said the parish intends to keep ELF preschool open. “We want to be part of providing for that need of taking care of preschool kids,” he said.
Sacred Heart Principal Julie Woods said the announcement wasn’t completely unexpected.
“Closing was an option we talked about early on. It was one of those things we had discussed. Nobody wants to hear that, but when you put all the numbers together and the potential of significant debt to keep the school open, it makes sense to make the difficult decision for the parish to keep everything viable,” Woods said. She quickly added that the parish is in sound financial status as things stand currently. To keep the school open would have meant asking for significantly more from parishioners to maintain it, and that could have put the parish in a financial bind.
Sacred Heart School was constructed in 1904 and opened Jan. 8, 1906 with six Sisters of Mercy from Cedar Rapids as teachers. The mid-term enrollment was 164. The new parochial school saw tremendous growth in following years, with the parish adding a high school building in 1929. A new athletic field and gymnasium were constructed in the early 1960s. (Source: Oelwein Centennial Book, 1873-1973, P. 132)
Sacred Heart’s first closure decision was made when its board of education voted to close grades 7-12 in June 1972, based on rising costs, lack of enrollment and shortage of sisters.
Woods, who had been retired seven years when she was called to fill the principal’s job at the beginning of April 2019, said she will likely return to retirement and maybe substitute teach.
“We will see. I’m more concerned that we get my teachers jobs somewhere to continue their careers,” she said.
One teacher and one associate will remain on staff for ELF Preschool. The preschool program is currently for three- and four-year-olds. Woods said they will be working with the public to help meet needs of the community, which could include daycare for younger children, but that is not known at this time.
As far as the school building goes, Woods said the closure process is too new to be able to see what the physical plant structure looks like down the road.
“Right now, we want to work as much as we can with the public schools to help the children make a smooth transition. Public school has always been great at including our kids for field trips, etc., so none are really strangers and hopefully they won’t be apprehensive about where they are going to school next fall,” Woods said. “We’re still absorbing the announcement. I’m sure there will be lots of questions to be answered between now and the end of the school year.”