April 16, 2020
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
When St. Mary’s Catholic School was first proposed by Rev. W. P. Lamb in 1907, he did not know if the idea would succeed. Catholic schools had been struggling in the south in the early 20th century, but Fr. Lamb felt confident that the quickly growing City of Lawton would be the perfect spot for a Catholic community to thrive. He was not wrong! For the past 113 years, Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church and St. Mary’s Catholic School have been striving to form children and their families spiritually and academically. Many generations of priests, religious sisters, lay faculty, students, and families have walked the halls of St. Mary’s. It has been a strong pillar in the community while constantly facing challenges and finding ways to adapt.
When I became the pastor of Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church and St. Mary’s Catholic School in July 2016, it was clear the school was struggling. This was not due to poor leadership, but more from an entire community that could no longer financially support a parochial school. Our student enrollment was low, our teacher pay was low, and the overall financial support was minimal. There also was a growing chasm between the parish community and the school community. When our student enrollment dipped to 95 students, it was clear that something needed to change. We reached a point where the growing annual deficit was being covered by dipping into a donor advised fund at the Catholic Foundation of Oklahoma that had been set up for the parish and school. Our tuition was too low, and our costs were too high. We also were facing difficult demographic trends, competition from other public and private schools, public relations challenges, and overall economic struggles within the local community.
In response to the stressors upon our community, I commissioned a strategic study with the assistance of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City in 2017 through Marian University in Indianapolis to look at the overall health of St. Mary’s. This study was assembled by viewing the school through different lenses, allowing us to have a good understanding of the school’s many facets. The vitality aspect of the study reviewed school and parish data, faith formation, and academics, including analysis of demographic trends published by the U.S. Census Bureau as well as data from Ft. Sill, Lawton, Elgin, Cache, and other nearby towns. The viability aspect looked at historical student enrollment data, actual tuition being collected compared to the true cost per student, and the financial resources available and needed to maintain a quality school program for our families. Finally, the study looked at the vibrancy of the school in relation to its cohesiveness with the wider community.
After the study was concluded, I held three town hall meetings in May 2018 to share the results of the study with the families from our school, our parish community, and other interested stakeholders. Everyone seemed really excited about the recommendations and we have been working to carry them out ever since. We hired a development director to assist the school with marketing, fund raising, and strengthening the relationship between the school and the communities we serve. We concluded a successful rebranding project to simplify our logo and motto, completely redesigned our website and social media channels, instituted new school uniforms, reestablished the St. Mary’s Alumni Association, and enjoyed many other successes.
I am so proud of how far we have come in the past four years.
While we have continued to raise our enrollment numbers (currently 135 students in Pre-K through 8th grade), our costs for the school have continued to climb. We are to a point that the parish has been funding the annual operating shortfalls with a designated investment fund held for us at the Catholic Foundation of Oklahoma, but this fund is limited. Drawing continually from the fund’s principal has been our only option to keep the school open, but it also has created significant “opportunity losses” for future school and parish endeavors. After receiving updated financial data in January 2020, I spoke frankly with the Blessed Sacrament Finance Council and the School Advisory Council of my serious concern that we had not been able to shrink our deficit and that we were coming dangerously close to hitting a designated point established by Marian University, Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church, and the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City that would trigger the closing of the school due to lack of funds to cover our budget shortfall. We put together a timeline to send a letter to all families of Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church, St. Mary’s Catholic School, and other nearby parishes to show that we have tried to run on limited funds for so long that we were quickly approaching a line that would cause the school to close.
This letter was going to be followed by a town hall meeting at the beginning of May 2020 to re-examine the 2017 Strategic Study and the results of our interventions. The hope was that we would still have a year before the investment fund was completely depleted.
Then, the COVID-19 pandemic began.
In the course of one week, our investment account plunged well below the line of no return. While we all expect the stock market to return after this current crisis has abated, the damage has already been done. After consultation with the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City and the Blessed Sacrament Finance Council, we have decided to close St. Mary’s Catholic School at the end of the 2019-2020 school year.
I love our school and have ceaselessly fought alongside our school family to keep the school open. This catastrophic chain of events was completely outside of our control, but it is up to us to take up this difficult task and to move forward. We are working closely with the Secretariat for Evangelization and Catechesis of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City to ensure that our students will have a smooth transition to their next school and that our dedicated faculty will leave their employment at St. Mary’s with pride for the great work they have done to prepare our children to be saints.
I have poured my heart and soul into St. Mary’s Catholic School. I will miss having lunch with our students in the cafeteria, teaching classes about their faith, and praying with them at our school Masses. As heartbroken as I am for the loss of the last Catholic school in southwestern Oklahoma, I am grateful for wonderful memories and the blessing St. Mary’s has been for our entire community.
Our commitment at Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church will continue to focus on the faith formation of our youth and our families. In the coming months we will begin to assess the strengths and weaknesses of all of our parish programs. Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church is a wonderful community of faith-filled and dedicated parishioners that deeply desire to know, love, and serve God and their neighbor. We are heartbroken to be losing St. Mary’s Catholic School, but we will face this challenge together and will continue to bring the powerful light of Christ to our community.
Please continue to pray for all of our students, their families, and our faculty and staff during these difficult days.
Our Lady of Fatima, pray for us!
Sincerely yours in Christ,
Very Rev. Brian Buettner
4-17-20: KSWO announcement
4-17-20: Lawton Constitution announcement
5-10-20: Sooner Catholic
Contact the school office at 355.5288.
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