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Vouchers could help bring back Lake Village school

Parish considers ordering feasibility study to support a decision

Published: May 23, 2023   
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Father Matthew Saettle opened St. Mary School in the fall of 1908, and Benedictine nuns from Holy Angels Convent in Jonesboro operated it for the first year, teaching in the church. The school closed in 2015 after 107 years.

A Catholic school could reopen in southeast Arkansas thanks to the state’s new LEARNS Act.

Our Lady of the Lake Church in Lake Village operated a pre-Kindergarten to fifth-grade school, called St. Mary School, for 107 years until it closed in 2015.

Pastor Father Stephen Hart led a town hall meeting April 18 to ask for feedback on reopening the school. With the introduction of vouchers for all students in 2025, more interest has surfaced in another private school option in Chicot County.

“After prayer and consultation with the Catholic Schools Office and Bishop (Anthony B.) Taylor, I opened the question of reopening St. Mary's School in view of the new landscape that is provided, though not guaranteed, by the LEARNS Act,” Father Hart told Arkansas Catholic. “I called the town hall meeting to give the parishioners a chance to express their views on this topic.”

In his remarks at the meeting, the pastor said, “I would like to emphasize that reopening St. Mary's School is not a done deal and that this process is in its beginning stages.”

Father Hart, who attended Catholic elementary and high school in Little Rock, said he wanted feedback from parishioners and the community on hiring a consultant to conduct a feasibility study.

“A feasibility study would analyze income, demographics and other factors that would substantially impact the operability of a Catholic school,” he told 33 people at the town hall meeting in the parish hall. “After this extensive research, it would provide concrete numbers of potential students, likely amount of annual income for the school, etc. The benefit of hiring an outside entity is that they are paid to tell us the truth of their research and not what we might want to hear.”

Father Hart said parishioners provided positive feedback on reopening the elementary school.

“Everyone who spoke loved the idea of the school reopening, although there were different opinions about its feasibility and whether or not we should pay for an outside firm to help us discern the question,” he said.

Currently, the parish is taking bids for the feasibility study, Father Hart said, but the final decision on the study will be made by the new pastor, Father Joe Friend, who takes over beginning May 29.

“We have received several bids but are also currently exploring other options,” he said. “It is possible that we would need only some portion of the services that a feasibility study would offer.”

Father Hart has looked at baptismal records since he arrived in July 2018 to determine how many Catholic families have children entering kindergarten or first grade.

“We have had 11 baptisms of infants of Caucasian, English-speaking families and 35 baptisms of infants of Hispanic families, the majority of whose parents are fully bilingual and bicultural, although some are monolingual Spanish-speakers,” he said. “Moreover, there are also many Catholic families whose infant children who have not yet been baptized, and several Catholic families whose eligible children who live here were baptized elsewhere.”

Father Hart is aware of parishioners’ interest in Catholic education because around 13 parishioners drive a 40-mile round trip to attend Our Lady of Lourdes Elementary and St. Joseph High School in Greenville, Miss.

Father Hart said he was told the school closed because of dwindling enrollment.

“Since my arrival, when the topic of reopening the school is put to me, I have answered that the opposite now appears to be true: there are plenty of potential students, but reopening would take a considerable amount of income.”

School leadership in 2015 also said it was difficult to hire a qualified principal and teachers.

While reopening a school will come with expenses, the school building is still available if St. Mary School opens. Today it is used for religious education for children and adult faith formation.

Parishioner Kristel Ann Alday, along with her husband Richard, said she wants her kindergarten-age son to go to Catholic school like she did in the Phillippines.

“It’s good to have a Catholic school in a community,” she said. “I wanted to know to know if it’s a possibility to have my son in a Catholic school in our community. I want him to have the same experience that I had.”

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