After 119 years, local Catholic high school faces closure

St. Thomas’ strong Catholic tradition adds to St. Paul’s strong Catholic community, but with St. Bernard’s high school fighting through financial woes and a continuous drop in enrollment, St. Paul may lose one of its long standing Catholic landmarks.

St. Bernard’s is located right off of Rice Street on West Rose Avenue, just about 7 miles from St. Thomas. The school has been a staple of northern St. Paul for 119 years.

“You never want to think about having to close a school,” said Jennifer Cassidy, St. Bernard’s president and principal. “I have been here for 15 years, and basically all 15 years have been a lot of work trying to overcome some of the external factors. It has been a long, hard fight.”

The school has lost $350,000 this year and project a $279,000 in the 2010-2011 academic year. The financial difficulties stem from a ongoing decline in enrollment, a decrease in the contributions from both the parish and other donors and an increase in the need for financial aid.

Cassidy said that enrollment problems have plagued the school since as early as 1995, when only 30 of the expected 90 incoming freshmen showed up on the first day of school.

Since then, St. Bernard’s has done many things to try and cope with the enrollment problem, including combining the high school and grade school under one administration in 1998. A development office was formed to try and produce funds, and the admissions office was upgraded to help recruit students from the entire metro area.

Last year St. Bernard’s implemented the international baccalaureate (IB) program as another attempt to increase interest and raise admissions numbers. Cassidy said the facilities do not draw attention to the school, so she hoped the IB program would set them apart from other Catholic schools in the area.

“It certainly isn’t in one year that St. Bernard’s is a different situation,” Cassidy said. “As an urban Catholic school, I think most of the schools that are in the city are fighting these other factors.”

Cassidy said one of these other factors is the change in the demographics in St. Paul’s north side. Fifty years ago, the neighborhood along Rice Street was largely made up of German and Austrian Catholic families who had settled there and built the church and school.

Over the years, those families have moved away, and incoming community members have a much different dynamic. They do not automatically become part of the St. Bernard parish or school system, Cassidy said.

St. Thomas senior and St. Bernard’s alumna Ashley Tischler has lived a block from the school all her life. She said she is not surprised that the school is closing at the end of the year because she has seen the changes in the neighborhood.

“Sadly, the neighborhood in general has gone downhill,” Tischler said. “This school has been around for 100 some years, and I think it will have a huge effect on the community, and I just hope that the church won’t close along with it because I don’t want to know what that could do to the community.”

The St. Thomas connection

Cassidy is a St. Bernard’s graduate, like several faculty and staff members at St. Bernard’s, and a 1986 St. Thomas alumna. Cassidy said her education at St. Thomas provided her great academic preparation for being a principal.

“That whole idea of having instructors and teachers who really care for you as a person [was] a great model for me when I became a teacher,” Cassidy said. “St. Thomas was also a place where I could really continue to live out my faith, and I think that also played a part for me to wanting to teaching in Catholic schools. It was just a natural continuation for me to want to bring that back to where I taught.”

Tom Gubash, St. Thomas senior and 2006 St. Bernard graduate, said his decision to come to St. Thomas was largely based on his Catholic background and the values the high school had taught him.

“I wanted to attend a university that had aligning morals and values, which were instilled in me through St. Bernard’s,” Gubash said. “The experience at St. Bernard’s enhanced my beliefs and enabled me to choose St. Thomas.”

The impact on the Catholic community in the metro

A parent group has formed to help raise money to prevent St. Bernard’s from having to close. A phone campaign was also set up to seek help from businesses and community members.

The parent groups and school officials are trying to raise $1.5 million to cover the losses and provide at least two more years of stability.

Cassidy said because the school is in the middle of a neighborhood, it is also has a responsibility to be the anchor for the community.

“I think for the Catholic school, in general for the archdiocese, St. Bernard’s is a one-of-a-kind school,” Cassidy said. “We serve people ranging from hard-working people to those in the upper class and those who are struggling financially … It is primarily the people that built this place, the hard-working blue collar, middle-class folks.

For Gubash, the news of the school closing comes at a pivotal stage in his life. Gubash was offered a job for after graduation in May during the same week.

“When I received the job offer, I looked back upon the steps I took to get to where I am today,” Gubash said. “It all started with my educational experience at St. Bernard’s. Extracting this historical institution would sadden not only current students, but also alumni who will not have an alma mater to call their own.”

Brian Matthews can be reached at