School reunions are all about remembering — the faces of our younger selves, the fashion mishaps of the day, the teachers who made a difference.
But at three Catholic grade schools in South Omaha, reunions scheduled for Sunday and the next two weekends also will be about saying goodbye.
St. Stanislaus, Assumption-Guadalupe and Holy Ghost Schools will close at the end of the school year as part of a realignment of area Catholic grade schools.
Before they close, all three are inviting students, alumni, parents, parishioners, neighbors and, well, pretty much anyone who wants to come. Visitors will tour the buildings, look over old class photos and share Mass and a meal or two.
Organizers aren't really celebrating. Many still are sad and some are upset about the decision to close.
But acceptance is settling in, and parents are deciding where to send their children next year. For some, that means breaking generations-long traditions of attendance at the schools.
Organizers say they want to recognize what the schools have meant to people for roughly a century. Assumption-Guadalupe is the oldest at 105, St. Stanislaus next at 93 and Holy Ghost the youngster at 90.
They also want to let people know that the parishes themselves remain open. St. Stanislaus still will hold its Polish Festival on the third weekend in August. Holy Ghost still will sponsor its chicken dinners, June Jamboree and Lenten fish fries.
“This was a wonderful place for us to be,” said Nancy Schlesiger, who is organizing the “Honoring Our Heritage, Celebrating Our Faith” event Sunday at St. Stanislaus. “We want to recognize it and have people back for one more look at the school.”
Heather Slizoski organized Holy Ghost's All School Reunion for April 27 and 28. She's already had a number of calls from people now living out of state.
“That's how you know how many people it's touched,” said Slizoski, an alumna whose three children now attend the school.
The school closings are part of a broader strategic plan — called Promise 2020 — that Archbishop George J. Lucas laid out last June with the intent of strengthening Catholic schools and parishes in east Omaha.
Starting next fall, five schools — Sts. Peter and Paul, Holy Cross, Our Lady of Lourdes, St. Thomas More and St. Bernadette in Bellevue — will come together in the new Omaha Catholic Schools Consortium. The schools will have their own principals but will operate under a single administration with a common tuition, teacher salaries, marketing and fundraising.
The three schools that are closing share a similar story — all were built by immigrants to provide places to worship and educate their children. Both St. Stanislaus and Holy Ghost started in one building — school on the lower floor, church on top. Later, the parishes built separate churches and converted the upper floors into classrooms. Assumption School was a separate building. The original school was razed when the new one was built in 1965.
At St. Stanislaus, the immigrants were largely Polish, said Schlesiger, a descendant of those immigrants. Her mother, now 84, graduated from the school. Her parents married there. Schlesiger and her four siblings attended, and her son, Jason, is a graduate.
In a way, her family's story echoes that of many parishes and schools in east Omaha. When they were founded, there were plenty of big families in the densely populated neighborhoods to support them.
Catholic school enrollment peaked in the 1960s. Catholics began moving west and having fewer children. Schlesiger now lives in La Vista but still attends church at St. Stanislaus.
Jim Staroski, a deacon at St. Stanislaus, said it's not unusual for people of his generation — he's 59 — to come back even though they've moved west.
Staroski has never lived more than two miles from the church. As a kid, his family lived six blocks from school. He'd go home at noon, “inhale” his lunch and run back to play ball with friends on the playground.
“That really was the center of our existence,” he said.
That goes double for Assumption, now known as Assumption-Guadalupe. In a way, it's had two lives. While most students today are Hispanic, the school and parish initially served Czech immigrants, said Ali Dibelka, a first-grade teacher involved in organizing its April 20 reunion. Her husband and his father both attended the school.
“You're talking 100 years of history ... that are no more,” she said.
The Rev. Greg Benkowski, Holy Ghost's pastor, said parishioners initially were concerned that losing the kids would mean the end of the parish. But many families who already have left the school — enrollment this year is down to 50 — have stayed with the parish.
Not having to support the schools is expected to take some financial pressure off the parishes. “It's kind of a mixed blessing,” he said. “I love having the kids. I'll miss all that vitality. But paying the bills ... has been a real strain on the parishes.”
The Rev. Michael Fitzpatrick, pastor of St. Stanislaus Church, said the parishes still will be expected to contribute to the consortium's operations. Although that assessment hasn't been set, it's expected to be less than the cost of operating a school. St. Stanislaus hopes to turn remaining income toward other programs, probably to serve its elderly members. Forty-eight of its parishioners are 90 or older. The parish lists 425 families.
Fitzpatrick said 80 percent of the families now at the school are planning on sending their children to consortium schools. “I'd say we're optimistic in every aspect because of this consortium of schools,” he said. “It would be more pessimistic if we were just closing the doors and saying goodbye.”
Benkowski said Holy Ghost just sent a questionnaire asking parents whether they plan to send their children to consortium schools next year. The school was on spring break last week, so it hasn't yet gotten responses.
Assumption-Guadalupe officials would like to see that school's mostly Hispanic student body move to Sts. Peter and Paul, which the archdiocese plans to make more welcoming to them.
Schlesiger, the lifelong St. Stanislaus member, said she knows the parish will move on. It might look a little different, but it still will be a parish and it still will have children.
But for now, the reunion will give everyone a chance to look back.
“It'll be a neat way and a fitting way to recognize our school,” she said.
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