By Jill Kruse
Witness Editorial Assistant
PETERSBURG — After providing its students with a quality faith-based education for 30 years, Archbishop Hennessy Catholic School in Petersburg will close its doors at the end of the 2017-18 school year.
The decision to close the school came after meetings between the Hennessy Catholic School Board, school administrators, and the parish councils for SS. Peter and Paul, Petersburg, and St. Boniface, New Vienna, the two parishes served by the school.
“It is a bitter pill to swallow to close a school, especially when it is your own,” said Father John O’Connor, pastor of the two parishes and the pastoral coordinator for Hennessy.
The school’s principal, Steve Cornelius, said closing the school was “incredibly difficult for everyone involved,” but cited declining enrollment as the reason for the decision.
“We have 45 students this school year, preschool through sixth grade,” Cornelius said. “Last year we had 56. We were hoping enrollment would pick up, but it hasn’t.”
Father O’Connor said the number of students attending the school has been impacted by the general decline in the number of people living in the rural area where Hennessy is located.
“The parishes now are surrounded by larger farms and dwindling population,” he said. “Consequently, unlike times past, not every square mile will find three to four families with children. This then means there are fewer students to fill the schools.”
Hennessy was founded in the fall of 1987 after the consolidation of St. Boniface School in New Vienna and SS. Peter and Paul School in Petersburg. In 2013, the school’s New Vienna center was closed and all students were moved to the Petersburg campus.
“Hennessy has a long and excellent history of education since the conception of both parishes,” said Father O’Connor. “Catholic schools have been a part of both SS. Peter and Paul, Petersburg, and St. Boniface, New Vienna. Together with the parishes, this has been one of the main means of communicating the teachings of Christ in the area.”
After the decision to close Hennessy was made on Sept. 6, and its teachers were notified, letters went home to inform families. Word of the upcoming closure was heartbreaking for parents.
“This is really tough for them,” Cornelius said. “Our parents — along with Father O’Connor — have worked really hard to keep this school open. And to think of it not being here next year brings a lot of sadness.”
Joy Gaul, who has a daughter and a son currently attending Hennessy, feels that sadness.
“Hennessy has been everything we have ever wanted for our children and more,” she said. “We couldn’t have asked for better teachers and staff. Hennessy is and always will be one big family, and it’s going to be hard to move on from there.”
The principal said parents who want their children to continue to receive a Catholic education will be encouraged to look at schools in neighboring communities — St. Francis Xavier School in Dyersville and La Salle Catholic Schools in Holy Cross.
“Students will be welcomed at those schools with open arms,” Cornelius said.
The Monday morning following the announcement of the upcoming closure, Hennessy began the school day with a prayer service. A counselor was present to talk to students about change and help them process the news.
“The big thing we were concerned about was making sure the kids understand and are given the support they need,” said Cornelius.
Gabriella Schilling, a Hennessy fourth-grader, said she was disappointed when she learned her school would be closing at the end of the year.
“I’m going to miss my teachers and classmates,” she said. “But I’m hoping to make new friends at a new school next year.”
According to the principal, efforts are also being made to help Hennessy’s teachers with the transition and to assist them in their search for new employment.
“We’re going to help them update their resumes and let neighboring schools know we have staff they may want to interview for positions. These are great teachers who really don’t see their positions as jobs; they really see them as ministries. We want to do what we can to help them,” said Cornelius.
Laura Herbers, lead teacher at Hennessy, said the school has been a special place to work during her time there, and she has appreciated being part of such a tight-knit community.
“Staff, students and parents all care for one another,” Herbers said. “It is a blessing that we’ve been given the opportunity to pray as a family each day year after year.”
Though saddened to learn that their time as a Hennessy family is coming to an end, Cornelius said that right now everyone is trying to concentrate on the remaining school year.
“We’re focused on making this the best year possible,” Cornelius said. “We’re talking about all sorts of different activities and possibly having an alumni reunion and bringing everyone together to celebrate what Hennessy has meant to them.”
While the school will soon close, Herbers said she believes the impact Hennessy has made will continue long into the future.
“Although we will part ways at the end of the school year, the deeply rooted faith and love gained from our time at Hennessy will remain within each of us,” she said.
Archbishop Hennessy Catholic School in Petersburg is shown. The building became one of two centers for the school in 1987 after a consolidation of two Catholic schools in New Vienna and Petersburg. (Photo by Jill Kruse/The Witness)