St. Pius X was established in 1963, in the building that was once Westerly High School, and when the Immaculate Conception School closed in the 1970s, it became the last parochial school in town. For the next 55 years, the teachers, staff, and parishioners tended to the academic and spiritual education of hundreds of students in grades K through 8.
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Many of these young people remain in the area to this day, having grown up to become friends, neighbors, and pillars of our community. One even went on to become the current pastor of St. Pius X, Father Michael Najim. Having attended the school from grades 1-5, he credits the care and education he received there as helping to further solidify his faith and his future.
Sadly, this June saw the final Graduation Mass as the school closed its doors at the end of this academic year due to a rapid decline in enrollment. The school had only enrolled 118 students the year prior and was looking at an enrollment of perhaps 100 students this year.
“It’s just very difficult to run a private school, where you’re paying teacher’s salaries and benefits and paying for the upkeep of the building and the property,” Father Najim explained. “It becomes very difficult to pay the bills at the end of the day, and any financial shortfall that we would have experienced would fall to our parish, and I couldn’t afford to take that risk going forward.”
Although Father Najim believes that Catholic education isn’t necessarily as widely valued as it once was, he believes the greater contributing factor in the lack of enrollment is family finances. “There aren’t a lot of parents who want to spend $6,000 a year to send their kids to elementary school,” Father Najim said. “I’ve spoken to many people, good people, in our parish and in town and they just can’t afford it, because they’re trying to save for college.”
The decision to close the school was not taken lightly by any means, and the news came as a relief to no one. “It was heartbreaking for me personally, and for me to see the reaction of the parents and families in the community,” Father Najim shared. “I’m not over exaggerating when I say it was honestly like a death. People really did go through a kind of grieving because the school was so loved and we live in a very close-knit community. I think there is a hole in a lot of people’s hearts. Once this new academic year starts, I know a lot of people will be thinking ‘Gosh, I wish we were back at St. Pius.’”
In June 2018, the parish held a special Mass to celebrate the legacy of St Pius X School; many current students and families along with alumni and former teachers attended, seeking closure, a chance to share fond memories, and to talk about the future.
Although the school is no longer operational, the parish’s religious education and youth ministry programs are alive and well, and it is Father Najim’s hope that families will continue to seek out and prioritize Catholic education and the spirit of discipleship. “There’s no question that it’s a wonderful legacy that the school leaves; one of not just a quality education for children, but of teaching them the importance of faith and of service.”