ALBANY — One of Benedictine Sister Donna Marie Chartraw's favorite photographs shows a girl emerging from a staticky plastic tube playground slide, hair on end. St. Mary's School here was electric in its day. But now the power is going out.
Officials this spring announced the school would close after 127 years because of dwindling enrollment and budget pressure. Sister Donna, an alumna and former teacher, thinks St. Mary's can go on in a different way.
"The school has closed, but may it remain open in the hearts and minds of the many who walked through its doors," she told a crowd gathered at the parish June 15 to mark the closure and celebrate years of good ministry. The congregation gave the Benedictines a tearful standing ovation.
"I am kind of disappointed that people after me won't get the St. Mary's experience," says Matt Easdale, who just graduated after nine years at St. Mary's. "Everyone knows you and you know everyone."
Logan Pawlowski, who just finished fifth grade, was removed from St. Mary's last year when it became clear it might close soon. His parents wanted him to make some friends in public school before heading to junior high.
"I liked the teachers at St. Mary's," Logan says. "It was a small school; you had to get along with everybody."
St. Mary's was "inspiring," says Michele Ecker, who taught there from 1997 to 2010, including the annual first Communion class. "Children taught me about the faith."
Ecker, whose eyes moisten as she talks about the school, hopes the spirit will live on if people tell stories. It may even reopen some day for her grandchildren, she hopes.
The Benedictines established the school just four years after their arrival at Mount Angel. They took boarders, including children from Indian reservations. The Sisters would escort boarders into town for recreation, including movies.
"For 127 years, God's grace has touched us in so many ways," said Kathy Reilly, former principal who is now pastoral associate of the parish. "It won't stop here tonight. All the ways God's grace has touched us will shine through us."
A quinceanera, a celebration of a 15-year-old girl that is part of Mexican tradition, preceded the closing Mass. Scores of children attended. But few if any had been enrolled at St. Mary's because parents felt they could not afford tuition. Slowly, as Albany's timber economy sputtered, the town had fewer and fewer jobs too attract young families.
"Everything quit in Albany," says Emil Gurger, a parishioner and craftsman who has laid floors and carpets in the school and parish for 60 years.
Darielle Church and Martha Palacios lost teaching jobs with the closure, but feel proud to have been at St. Mary's. Church, who also taught in public school for years, says Catholic education may need a new model, with multiple parishes sponsoring one school, for example.
Father Andrew Thomas, pastor of St. Mary, Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish, is saddened by the closure, but hopes new opportunities will come along. A priest who specifically asked to be posted at a parish with a school, Father Thomas worked to keep St. Mary's open. He calls his parish "a great family in faith."
Joan Krieger graduated from St. Mary's in 1958. She then sent three of her children and saw four grandchildren attend. A great-grandchild was ready to start next fall. "I am sad," Krieger says. "It was a wonderful place."
The memory of favorite teacher, Sister Germaine, sums up Krieger's St. Mary's experience and the special charm of the school: "A good teacher, kind, funny, with a little bit of red curly hair that would sometimes poke out from her habit."