Following the announced closure of Lebanon Catholic School, alumni, teachers, students, and family members attended a socially distant gathering on Saturday, May 2 to show their support for the school.
The decision to close the school was announced by the Diocese of Harrisburg on April 28. The diocese, which covers a 15-county region, cited “financial stress and decreasing enrollment” as the main drivers of the decision to close the Lebanon school, along with another in Berwick. The diocese, which has itself been struggling financially for years, said that Lebanon Catholic had accumulated almost $3 million in debt, according to a “frequently asked questions” document.
“As a ministry of the area parishes, this debt is the responsibility of the parishes,” said the diocese in the FAQ. “The debt burden at Lebanon Catholic has reached a point that the area parishes can no longer sustain.” According to the diocese, pastors from Lebanon area parishes requested the closure after receiving a recommendation to do so from the diocese.
The announcement came as a devastating shock to many Lebanon Catholic alumni, parents, students, and teachers, prompting members of the community decided to organize a “gathering of support.”
“If we can’t physically be together, then we needed some positive way of supporting each other and keeping each other’s spirits up in such a dark time,” said Joanne Eisenhauer, who organized the event with Margie Groy and Rynell Tirado. “We need each other to get through this.”
Hundreds of people attended, a sizable turnout for a school with 317 students currently enrolled and just over a few dozen faculty and staff members. Attendees parked their cars in the Lebanon Catholic parking lot and along much of Chestnut Street.
To stay safe and comply with social distancing guidelines, the majority of attendees participated without leaving their vehicles, showing support for the school and each other by waving, holding signs, and honking car horns.
“We can’t be [physically] together but this is our way of showing each other our support to one another, to our school, as well as trying to show the community how important the school is to us,” said Eisenhauer.
At the gathering, the teachers of Lebanon Catholic, many of whom have dedicated a large part of their lives to the school, did a “mini parade” for the attendees. They drove past the school and up and down Chestnut Street, playing music, holding signs, and waving to students and their families.
“Getting to see all of the teachers and all of [her son’s] classmates, and getting to reunite with anybody that we could, that was great,” said Lebanon Catholic school board member, parent, and alumnus Joya Morrissey. “Even though we were in cars, just getting to see everyone was refreshing and reassuring.”
For many of the attendees, the circumstances of the gathering evoked a mix of emotions. Morrissey described her feelings during the event as “every emotion rolled into one.”
“It was exciting, happy, and sad,” she said. “It was such a wide range of emotions but you want to be strong for the kids.”
By attending the event, the Lebanon Catholic community hoped to bring awareness to how much their school means to them.
“I would love to see this grab some attention and maybe people who aren’t aware of the family [at Lebanon Catholic],” said Eisenhauer. “Our hopes are that maybe it would open some people’s eyes who are unaware of how much Lebanon Catholic means to us and how much it closing affects us.”
Lebanon Catholic community members also wanted to support each other during a time that is difficult for all of them.
“As soon as I heard about [the gathering], I wanted to go support my family,” said Megan Walborn, who graduated from Lebanon Catholic in 2006. “Lebanon Catholic is a big part of who I am, my education, my faith, my values, my social connections, everything.”
When Walborn was a student at Lebanon Catholic, her father was diagnosed with cancer. The administration gave several gift cards to her family help them pay for groceries and other expenses while he was sick.
“That just shows the kind of people they have at Lebanon Catholic,” she said. “They’re not just there to work. They truly care about the students. They’re family.”
There is currently no specific plan to bring Lebanon Catholic back, but many of those who attended the gathering hope that it is the start of an effort to save the school.
“If this sends positive news our way, we will be eternally grateful,” said Eisenhauer.
“I hope that it shows the priests and the bishop what the school means to us, that it’s a loss not just to our family to the community,” said Skulski.
Despite the outpouring of support, Lebanon Catholic seems unlikely to reopen, as the decision to close the school was in the works for a while, according to Morrissey.
The diocese had set financial goals for Lebanon Catholic, which were met with the help of Principal Deb Waters and the school board, said Morrissey. However, with the diocese filing for bankruptcy, the school will close despite their best efforts.
“(Principal Waters) did everything the diocese told her to do, but to no avail,” said Morrissey. “We did our part.
“We held up our end of the deal and the same courtesy wasn’t given to us by the priest and the bishop, unfortunately.”
“It is particularly difficult, given the effort over the last year by so many to move [Lebanon Catholic] to a place of financial stability and sustainability,” said Waters in a video statement.
Additionally, some have theorized that the timing of the closure’s announcement was influenced by the pandemic.
“If anything, they saw the shutdown as an opportunity to say ‘let’s just do this now, and it will look like it’s because of the pandemic,’” said Morrissey. “That sounds harsh but I do believe they used it to their advantage.”
Because of the closure, there are now concerns about the future of Catholic education, as Lebanon Catholic was the only Catholic school in Lebanon County.
“We need to keep Catholic education local,” said Morrissey. “It’s dying out and when you have 24 funerals for every baptism, it’s wrong to close the school. It’s wrong to shut our children down.
“You need the children already enrolled in Catholic education to be the future of the schools and the parishes.”
In addition to the blow it will strike to Catholic education in Lebanon County, the closure of the school will impact the lives of many of those in the community, as it had a lot of significance for many different people.
“It’s a very sad moment for the Lebanon Catholic community and it’s something that will be felt for a long time,” said Mary Ann Skulski, who has been part of the community for over 18 years.
Both of Skulski’s sons and her daughter attended the school, with graduation years of 2014, 2022, and 2023, respectively.
“For my children, I feel terrible for them,” said Skulski. “I know that it’s a tremendous loss for them. [The students at Lebanon Catholic] are the people that they’ve gone to school with and to not be able to graduate with them is a huge loss.”
Skulski and her husband moved to Lebanon County from out of state, but they quickly found community at Lebanon Catholic.
“The people we’re close to here, that’s our family,” said Skulski. “We really are a family. It’s a small, tight-knit school and the relationships we have formed there over the years are lifelong.”
The community at Lebanon Catholic undoubtedly contributes to the feeling many expressed that it is “more than just a school.”
“Lebanon Catholic is a part of us,” said Eisenhauer. “It’s within us. It means so much more than just a school.”
While Eisenhauer herself is not an alumnus, her daughter is a senior at Lebanon Catholic and will be the 4th generation in her family, starting with her great-grandfather, to be graduating from Lebanon Catholic.
It is common for Lebanon Catholic community members to have had members of the family as alumni. For Andrew Zidik, Lebanon Catholic helps him feel closer to his late father, who was an alumnus and dedicated his skills to the school.
Zidik’s father was a known artist in the area and painted a mural in the school’s gymnasium, and often made decals, painted signs, and did various other tasks to help the school.
“Sending my children there, it just feels like he’s with us,” said Zidik. “Sitting in that gymnasium watching my daughters play basketball with the mural behind me with his signature on the wall, there’s just something about it.”
His father passed away before his children were born, so them going to Lebanon Catholic is a way for them to connect with him.
“I just feel like he’s able to see them grow,” said Zidik. “That’s where it really hits home. That’s part of my desire to keep it running, along with how phenomenal it is.”
Overall, the gathering on Saturday allowed the Lebanon Catholic community to be together and support one another during this difficult time.
“We all needed to be together because that’s what we do at Lebanon Catholic,” said Eisenhauer. “When one person hurts, we all hurt. And right now, we’re all hurting.”
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More photos of Saturday’s event
All images by Will Trostel.
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