Parents calling for a miracle: Catholic school in Ridgewood faces closure after 114 years

The abrupt news of the St. Matthias Catholic Academy closure generated a last-ditch effort to avert the closure of this cherished institution.
Photo by Anthony Medina

The St. Matthias Catholic Academy, a faith-based educational institution that has been serving families in Ridgewood and the surrounding neighborhoods for 114 years, is slated to close, and its supporters are looking for a miracle to keep it open.

The school is scheduled to permanently close in June due to declining enrollment rates, rising costs and mounting debt, according to a letter sent out to parents earlier this week by Board of Trustees Chair Gregory J. Haufe and Principal Keri-Ann Wade-Donohue.

However, parents, shocked by the sudden announcement, have launched a last-ditch effort to save the historic institution. They aim to enroll 50 additional children over the next two weeks to help keep it in operation. If they succeed, the school stands a chance to remain open.

School officials, meanwhile, are lamenting the impending closure.

“I wish it could have been different. I’m heartbroken,” said Donohue in an interview with the Ridgewood Times. “I’m trying to just keep up the positive perspective right now so the kids can finish the year strong.”

The school, located at 58-25 Catalpa Ave., has a long history in Ridgewood. It opened its doors in 1909 and transitioned to an academy in 2017. The institution has offered engaging programs over the decades while serving pre-K to 8th-grade students.

However, Donohue said the school has had to contend with low enrollment numbers in recent years, especially following the COVID-19 pandemic. The institution has aimed to boost enrollment numbers but has been unable to reach a sustainable level.

“The fact that the enrollment hasn’t recovered had us operating in deficits for the last four years, and the PPP loans during the pandemic helped to kind of just put things off for a while,” Donohue said. “But now that that’s all over, the two things together, the declining enrollment and the rising debt, is something that is just unsustainable.”

A parent meeting inside St. Matthias Catholic Academy only days after school officials announced the end of the school in June. Photo by Anthony Medina

Donohue added that the difficulties of running a school during the COVID-19 pandemic also strained the institution’s finances since they still had to keep empty classrooms operational.

During a Wednesday night parent meeting attended by nearly 180 parents seeking answers, Haufe also explained how enrollment had steadily declined and had been putting financial pressure on the school.

Haufe said that the number of students enrolled in the school had declined from 401 in 2016 to 154 by the end of this fiscal year. He said that the school building can accommodate more than 400 people, but is currently running at a 150-person capacity.

The financial deficit crippling the academy was also a central component of Haufe’s remarks while explaining the upcoming closure. He said the school would have shut down sooner if not for the pandemic’s Payment Protection Program, which covered massive budget deficits from 2020, 2021 and 2022. The program granted the school $600,000.

“The pandemic saved our school as well as decimated it,” Haufe said.

At the end of the last school year, the academy was about $165,000 in debt and is trending toward a $300,000 deficit this year, according to Haufe.

“As a result, we anticipate that the total debt that we will be in by the end of August will be $500,000,” Haufe said. “If we were to open next year, we’d be faced with a similar $300,000 deficit. We can’t run a school year-to-year.”

Tears were running down the faces of parents and faculty at the meeting as they tried to come to terms with the news. Dozens of parents frustrated with the abruptness of the academy’s decision asked why they weren’t made aware of the issues sooner.

A student observes a leaf grown in St. Matthias’ hydroponics lab through a microscope in 2019. Photo by Mark Hallum/QNS

Despite the heated outcries, it was evident that the parents’ calls for action—especially from the school’s board—were based on a deep passion for the staffers and the historic institution.

Nicole Rodriguez, an active parent who was first introduced to St. Matthias through a CYO basketball program for her son, expressed her admiration for the academy’s current principal.

“Mrs. Donohue, I want to just thank you. You came and did everything that you could to save our school,” Rodriguez said. “It’s not fair that you were only with us for one year and this is the way it is.”

Like many parents, Rodriguez faces the prospect of finding another Catholic school for her child. She expressed her concerns pertaining to those alternatives, noting that the many programs and clubs offered at St. Matthias are hard to find at other locations.

Additionally, parents like Katherine Serrano, who has sent her older kids to St. Matthias in the past, are faced with finding another school for their son in the fifth grade. Serrano helped the school develop a lunch program back in 2019 so students could have added food options when attending school.

The closure is also affecting the faculty.

For instance, Elizabeth Colon, who has taught at the school for 16 years and has a child currently enrolled in the Pre-K program, is now searching for a new job and is on the hunt for a new school for her child. Parents at the meeting described Colon as a standout educator at St. Matthias.

A room filled with relatively new faces to the school, and those who have seen generations of family members enter the academy’s doors, sought solutions to keep the school open. They discussed raising funds via donation efforts and merging with another school to utilize the building. Keeping the children together as much as possible was the overarching factor that remained at the forefront of the parents’ needs.

Hours after hearing the passionate pleas of parents who wanted to help find a solution to keep the school open, the Board of Trustees entered a meeting behind closed doors in an attempt to keep the institution alive.

Later that night, parents told Ridgewood Times that the board decided if the academy could enroll 50 students in the next two weeks, the school would remain open.

Furthermore, the school is now offering $1,000 off for applicants who enroll. Tuition assistance options and financial aid, which are currently offered, will also be expanded to encourage student enrollment.

The newly formed parent-teacher association says it has already obtained three new pledged families since last night. If parents and educators cannot meet the new enrollment goal, the school is expected to close as planned.

St. Matthias Catholic Academy is encouraging parents to inquire further about enrollment by calling (718) 381-8003 or sending an email at office@stmatthiasca.org. Potential applicants are also encouraged to contact the school through its website at www.stmatthiasca.org or send a message through Facebook or Instagram.

The Brooklyn Queens Diocese, which oversees Catholic schools in the two boroughs, has closed 150 schools over the past 20 years, according to Deacon Kevin McCormack, the Superintendent of Brooklyn and Queens Catholic schools.