ST. LOUIS • Declining enrollment will close St. Elizabeth Academy, one of the city’s oldest Catholic high schools, at the end of the school year.
The Catholic order that has operated the all-girls school at 3401 Arsenal Street since 1882 announced the decision Tuesday. This year’s enrollment is 133. Decades ago, it was more than 500.
Sister Susan Borgel, president of the school, said the decision was heartbreaking but had been discussed for the last three years. School officials told students in an assembly on Tuesday.
“The first question somebody asked was, ‘What will happen to the teachers?’ ” Borgel said. “That’s because this really is a community, and it’s hard to have that come to an end.”
The declining enrollment threatened the school’s ability to offer a quality high school experience, she said. An increasing deficit and the cost of maintenance on the aging school also factored into the decision.
Sarah Duda, 16, a sophomore from St. Louis Hills, said the plan to close the school left her “distraught and sad and kind of depressed.”
“We’re friends and we’re family here,” Sara said.
LaShanda Chapman, 39, was waiting outside the school Tuesday afternoon for her daughter Kyria Patrick, 17, a junior, to finish a dance team practice. Chapman said her daughter had broken the news about the school’s closing in a phone call earlier in the day.
“She said, ‘Mom, I have the worst news ever,’ ” Chapman said.
The family travels about 20 minutes to the school from their home in north St. Louis. Chapman said that she didn’t know what she would do but that Kyria wanted to go to whatever school her friends go.
“I am so heartbroken, I am at a loss for words,” Chapman said. “Everything is great about the school, and it’s just so family-oriented.”
Just this fall, Donna Dill and other class of 1962 graduates gathered for their 50th reunion. One of the best parts, Dill said, was going to “Lizzie’s” for homecoming and attending Mass in the same chapel she did as a high schooler. She graduated with 125, and about 50 attended a reunion dinner.
“I was just saying to my husband how glad I was we got to do that,” said Dill, a past board member who helped organized the 125th anniversary celebration. “It won’t be the same, but it was just not feasible anymore to keep the school open.”
Tuition for the 2012-13 school year is $8,900. But most of its students come from the city and nearby suburbs, and that had become difficult for families to afford, said Jane Weiss Keuss, director of admissions and a 1965 graduate.
Her mother graduated from the school, as well as her three sisters and two daughters.
“We all cried,” she said. “It’s difficult to say goodbye to something that been this big a part of a lives.”
St. Elizabeth is the second-oldest Catholic high school operating in the city. St. Louis University High School opened in 1818.
For the rest of the year, Borgel said, school officials will work with the archdiocese to place students in another high school for 2013-14.
“There will be difficult moments, but we hope to keep the school as normal as possible under the circumstances,” she said.
Michelle McBrady, 1990 graduate who now is a sociology professor at Benedictine University near Chicago, found out about the closure via Facebook as news spread Tuesday afternoon. She was part of a small group of girls from South County who carpooled into the city when she went to school there. Most of the teachers at that time were nuns.
“You just felt like you were part of a family,” said McBrady, who attended her 20-year reunion.
The school saw a downturn in enrollment when the economy soured a few years ago, although a slight decrease had already begun 15 years ago.
But it was about more than education for the thousands of women who have graduated from St. Elizabeth, graduates say. It was also the friendships and extracurricular activities that “make us the women we are today,” Weiss Keuss said.
“That’s the saddest part — that legacy will not continue,” she said. “We wanted to go out being proud of what we offered our young women.”
Rachele Moramarco, 31, who teaches music and theater at the school, said she was saddened to learn that St. Elizabeth’s days were numbered but she said she was mostly concerned about the students.
“I love my girls, and all the teachers are really committed to making this as easy a transition as it can be,” Moramarco said. “We still have a semester left, and we’re going to have a great semester.”
Margaret Gillerman of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.