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Pastor: St. Mary School in Lake Village must close

May 29 will be last day for Chicot County’s only remaining private school

Published: April 23, 2015   
St. Mary School pre-K and kindergarten class listens to firefighter Sammy Angel and Santa Lee of the Lake Village Fire Department. The school, which has been open since 1908, is closing with the end of the school year in May.

LAKE VILLAGE — For more than 100 years, St. Mary School served Catholic and non-Catholic students in Lake Village and surrounding communities.

On May 29 it will close its doors because of dwindling enrollment. Principal Mary Belle Tonos’ retirement was announced earlier this school year and it has been difficult to find a qualified replacement as well.

St. Mary was the last private school to operate in Lake Village.

Pastor Father Theo Okpara met with the parish council April 14 and decided it was best to close the school. Bishop Anthony B. Taylor approved the decision and the staff was told April 16.

“It’s just been so important to this entire community since 1908. But as the Catholic population has decreased and the Delta area population has decreased, we have just not had the students we absolutely have to have.” Mary Belle Tonos, principal

“This has not been an easy decision, but we had to do what is best for all stakeholders in this case,” the pastor wrote to the parents. “My hope is that you accept this as God’s will and continue to offer your children the best education for their bright future.”

When the school celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2008, it boasted 91 students in pre-kindergarten to sixth grade. Enrollment has dwindled to 50 students this past fall in pre-kindergarten to fifth grade. Pre-registration this spring garnered only 27 students for this fall.

The low enrollment for the 2015-2016 school year “put some doubt in the minds of the principal, the parish council members and myself regarding the financial burden this will be on the parish if the number does not increase to at least 45-50 students,” Father Okpara wrote. “Looking at the county and the Lake Village demographics and St. Mary enrollment trends for the past 10 years, our parish council members are skeptical about the chances of having up to 50 students next (school) year.”

In addition to Tonos, who also taught fourth- and fifth-grade language arts, the school employed seven full-time teachers, one pre-K aide and two part-time staff members. One teacher had also decided to not return for the 2015-2016 school year and another was undecided, the principal said. 

“It was very difficult to find teachers,” Tonos said. “We even had trouble finding substitute teachers.”

Tonos said because enrollment was so low everyone “kind of expected it” to close, but it has been heartbreaking for her and others affiliated with the school.

“I am very sad, I don’t know what else to say,” Tonos said. “It’s just been so important to this entire community since 1908. But as the Catholic population has decreased and the Delta area population has decreased, we have just not had the students we absolutely have to have. We’ve just been put in a position where we just cannot continue. I love this little school; it just makes me very, very sad.”

Because there are no other private schools in the county, Tonos said many of the parents are planning to enroll their children in a Catholic or private school in Greenville, Miss., 15 miles from Lake Village.

St. Mary Church, now known as Our Lady of the Lake, was built in 1869 on the banks of Lake Chicot. In the fall of 1908 Father Matthew Saettle opened St. Mary School and Benedictines from Holy Angels Convent in Jonesboro operated it for one year, teaching in the church. In 1910 the sisters from St. Scholastic Monastery in Fort Smith arrived and taught there until 1987. In 1987 the seventh and eighth grades were dropped but a kindergarten was added in 1988. In 2001 the former convent was renovated into a preschool for 3 and 4 year olds.

It was around this time that Leslie Justice’s children began attending the school. She has now had three attend St. Mary, with her youngest Luke completing the fifth grade this year.

“It’s very depressing, it almost makes me want to cry just talking to you about it,” Justice told Arkansas Catholic. “We loved the school, the environment, just everything … You can’t get a better education I don’t think anywhere. Our heart is there to be honest with you. To me, it’s the mission of the Church, that’s the way I look at the school. It’s a way to reach these kids religiously, educationally.”

Justice, who is Baptist and served for many years on St. Mary school board and on the PTO board, said if the school offered sixth grade as it had in the past, “the students would have definitely stayed.”

“It was a great school, Catholic, non-Catholic it doesn’t matter. I am thankful we were able to be there,” Justice said.

Malea Hargett and Aprille Hanson contributed to this article.

School Closings

Seven Catholic schools have closed in Arkansas over the past 10 years.

2005: Holy Redeemer, El Dorado

2006: Our Lady of Good Counsel, Little Rock

2007: Immaculate Conception, Blytheville

2012: St. Peter, Pine Bluff

2013: St. Joseph, Pine Bluff; St. Raphael, Springdale

2015: St. Mary, Lake Village

Two schools, St. Mary and St. Patrick, consolidated in 2007 to form North Little Rock Catholic Academy.

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