By Jeff Noble
LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. —
St. Camillus Academy, a center of learning, inspiration and life in Corbin for more than 100 years, will close its doors for good in May.
The private Catholic school, which sits atop a hill in East Corbin, will shut down at the end of the current school year.
The decision to close was made Tuesday by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Lexington, which has operated St. Camillus for the past two years. Diocese officials told school leaders that financial reasons were to blame for the closing.
It was Diocese Superintendent Tim Weaver who came to Corbin to tell the school about the closing. He first met Tuesday morning with Terry Newquist, the principal of St. Camillus. Then Weaver spoke with teachers in the afternoon, and later met with the school’s board in the evening.
Newquist told the students the news on Wednesday.
“We’re still in shock, to be honest. Our school council is just not willing to give up. We’d like to save the school, that’s what we have to look at. But we’re overwhelmed by this news right now,” Newquist said Wednesday morning.
She added the reaction from the students was what one would expect, and that some were very upset by the news of the school’s closing.
“It’s been a tough day. That’s because we really are a family here. I know every student by name. The parents drop their kids off in the morning, talk to each other in the car lane, and pick them up in the afternoon. And everyone knows everyone else’s kids. This is a very close-knit community,” Newquist noted.
News of the school’s closing came during Newquist’s first year as principal. Like many who work at St. Camillus, she’s been with the school for years, which reinforces the sense of family that she has with students and staff.
“I’ve done every job there has to be done at the school. Drive the buses, clean the toilets, work in the cafeteria, teach, of course, and now principal.”
Newquist said those who want to save St. Camillus will begin to find ways to prevent its shutdown. Tuesday, the school will have a parent meeting at 7 p.m., to keep parents informed on what’s happening, and listen to ideas they may have.
Even with the clock ticking, the staff continues to hold out for hope.
“We can’t see where it is right now, but we still have hope,” she said. “As one of our board members said last night (Tuesday), ‘If God wants this school to be open, it will be open.’”
Neither diocese nor Sisters can afford the expenses
The operation of St. Camillus was part of a three-year agreement between the diocese and the Sisters of Divine Providence, who own the school and property. Based at St. Anne Convent in the northern Kentucky community of Melbourne, the Sisters have played a major role in St. Camillus since its beginnings in 1908.
Corbin and 50 counties in central and eastern Kentucky belong to the Diocese of Lexington, which was established in 1988.
In a phone interview, Weaver said the contract to run St. Camillus had provisions, with one in particular addressing the school’s finances.
“One of the provisions was that we could terminate the contract, due to financial reasons. Two years ago, the school had around 130 students. They’ve lost students since then but picked up a little this school year. And it cost $268,000 to cover all expenses in the two years the diocese has operated St. Camillus. Last Friday, I met with the Sisters in Melbourne, talked to them about the situation, and they agreed to close the school. They are not able to continue the school on their own, either.”
Currently, St. Camillus has 83 students in classes from Montessori to sixth grade. Newquist noted they have seen declining enrollment recently.
“We’ve had declining enrollment over the years. We’re not unique. Most Catholic and private schools are struggling right now. That was the hope to keep the school going, to have the diocese run the school. As for the property, it’s owned by the Sisters, so it will be the Sisters who will determine what happens to the property.”
Sisters hope buildings, land can be put to public use
An official with the Sisters of Divine Providence confirmed Thursday they’re looking at options to sell the buildings and property of the Corbin school.
“I don’t know what will happen next, but we are looking at those options to sell. The hope is maybe a community college could use the facility and it could make a nice satellite school for somebody. Maybe it could be bought by the city of Corbin,” said Sister Fran Moore, provincial superior of the U.S. Province, Sisters of Divine Providence.
When the decision to close was announced Tuesday, Sister Fran discussed why the school would be shut down in May.
“We wanted to make sure that the parents and children had the time to make a decision to where their children will go to school. And that the teachers and staff will also have time to look for employment. We don’t do things without a great deal of consideration and discussion.”
Sister Fran added the next few months will be crucial in determining the future of the site that’s become a Corbin landmark for more than a hundred years.
“We’re open to options what we can do. And maybe some great idea could miraculously come up.”