Several Holy Spirit teachers and staff were asked about their most special memories at the s…
Tuesday was more than just the last day of school at Holy Spirit Academy.
It was the LAST last day of school.
The 113-year-old Catholic school — the last one in Lawrence County — closed its doors for good following a farewell Mass in adjacent St. Vitus Church and a send-off brunch for the school’s sixth-grade “seniors.”
In addition to students, it was also the last day for teachers like Jackie Pisano, Holy Spirit’s longest tenured instructor.
“I’ve been here 36 years; my entire career,” Pisano said. “Thirty-six years of love and joy.
“It’s tough. I look at all the students and think of all the good, but it’s hard. I think it will hit me further on down the line when I realize that it’s really done.”
After struggling financially for several years because of dwindling enrollment, the school was targeted in April for closure, with Holy Spirit to provide tuition support for current students to attend either the Kennedy Catholic System of Schools in Mercer County, or another school of their choice within the Pittsburgh Diocese.
Father Joseph McCaffrey, parish pastor, acknowledged the difficulty of the decision, but looked more toward the new beginning that it fosters, rather than the old chapter that it ends.
“We’re concluding our school year, and also our times as Holy Spirit Academy,” he said. “It’s the closing of our school, but the beginning of new hope in our relationship with the Kennedy Catholic school system that can offer far more than we can.”
Earlier, during his homily at Mass, he told students that life is full of beginnings and endings.
“This is just one of many that will occur in your life,” he said. “You’re going to begin a new school year in a new place. Whether it’s Kennedy Catholic, or whether it’s some other school, eventually, you will leave there too, and you will begin again, and again, and again.
“The older we get, the more endings and beginnings there are. But they all carry something constant with them, and that is our relationship with God.”
Sixth-grader Landon Moats already is focused on what comes next.
“I don’t think I’m very sad about (the school closing),” he said. “It’s been going on for more than a hundred years. I think it was just time. Most of us are going up to Kennedy Catholic next year, so we’ll be able to see each other again there.”
If there is any worry, it's about what to expect come fall.
“Just making new friends and having new teachers,” he said. “I’ve never done that before. This is the only school I’ve ever gone to.”
Since Holy Spirit offered only six grades, Landon and his classmates would have had to find new schools regardless of whether Holy Spirit closed or remained open. That wasn’t lost on Joseph Mastropietro.
“I was kind of sad when I heard the school was closing because I had so many memories from years ago,” he said, “but I was leaving anyway.”
Raynen Jackson didn’t arrive at Holy Spirit until part way through third grade, when he transferred from Neshannock. The welcome he got remains vivid in his memory.
“This was the place I got sheltered after I came from Neshannock,” he said. “Everyone was really open and nice. I was pretty sad to hear that the school was closing, and all my friends were really, really sad.”
Two years ago, after McCaffrey was dispatched to New Castle to oversee the seven-parish merger that formed Holy Spirit in 2019, one of his first orders of business was to install Ed Sharbaugh as principal of what was then still St Vitus School.
Sharbaugh brought with him an ambitious agenda to bolster the school’s student life offerings, as well as its science and technology programs, in an effort to swell enrollment.
Among the former were more field trips, a tennis team and a unit of equestrian education that included horseback riding and learning to care for the animals.
“That was our biggest goal,” Sharbaugh said, “to develop our student life program, the extracurriculars, the activities that kids want to be involved in, and parents want their kids to be involved in. So we did a lot with that.
“It’s sort of bittersweet. There are some successes that we celebrated, but a lot of disappointments, too. Our main goal was to increase the enrollment and we just weren’t able to do that.”
Eventually, he added, both the memories of both the victories and the setbacks will fade, but one thing will remain with him always.
“What stays with me are the relationships that I developed here working with the staff, the administration, the parents, the teachers, the kids,” he said. “I developed a lot of friendships and I know they’re going to last a long time ... That was the real upside to it.”
Sharbaugh put his commitment to technology in the hands of teachers Melanie Widelko, Tara Garczewski and Marguerite Wills. They oversaw an initiative that put Chromebooks in the hands of each student in third grade and up, and had them training other instructors in Google apps for education.
“I’m confident in my students and staff here, knowing that they’re going out to other jobs and other schools at the top of their game, as far as ed-tech goes,” said Widelko, who now will put her technology prowess to use in the service of the parish. “That makes me feel really good.”
What she will miss most is the family atmosphere of Holy Spirit.
“I’ve been in lots of other schools in my career, they’ve been wonderful, but this has a family atmosphere like no other,” she said in wrapping up her 11 years of teaching at the school. “We all care for one another. That for me, in addition to being able to practice our faith together and pray together as part of education, there’s nothing else like that. It is beyond special.”
She gets no argument from Pisano.
“All I can say,” she summed up, “is that it’s been beautiful; a beautiful experience.”