Our Lady of La Salette School, 1943-2013.
After seventy years of operation, Our Lady of La Salette School in Berkley, Michigan closes its doors forever this month. Like many other Catholic schools in the United States, La Salette was done in by a sagging economy and changing demographics. Having enrolled nearly 1,000 students in its heyday in the 1960s, La Salette saw its student population decline preciptously in recent years: enrollment for the 2012-13 school year was only 73, barely half of what it was as recently as five years ago.
The closing of the school touches me personally because I once taught there: the novitiate where I entered the Society of Jesus was located in Berkley, and one of the novitiate trials (or 'experiments') that I and many other novices underwent was a period teaching religion at La Salette. St. Ignatius of Loyola wanted all Jesuits to spend some time engaged in "the instruction of children and unlettered persons in Christianity," and teaching at La Salette was a means of fulfilling that mission. I wrote a little about my experience at La Salette on my old blog, and though I now wince at the sort of first-fervor superlatives that I used then - I wonder whether I really found teaching seventh-graders "delightful and truly invigorating" - I still recall my time at the school with affection. Getting out of the hothouse environment of the novitiate for a few hours a week was good for me, and I hope that the students took something positive away from my lessons (I honestly don't remember much of what I may have told them, though I may have some of my teaching notes somewhere in my files).
The closing of Our Lady La Salette School doesn't really surprise me, as I sensed that the writing was on the wall even when I was there eight years ago. The principal and teachers at the school struggled mightily to provide a good education with meager resources, while enrollment (then around 140, I think) was already a cause for concern. Though small, the student body drew members not merely from Berkley but from neighboring suburbs and even from Detroit itself; the closing of other Catholic grade schools in the area had led families in other parishes to send their to children to La Salette, while some families who were not Catholic saw the school as a desirable alternative to failing public schools. Photographs of the large classes of the 1950s and '60s lined the hallways, providing a reminder of the years when the school was bursting with students, while empty classrooms spoke of a very different present. In a certain sense, the novitiate itself was a part of the story of La Salette's decline: constructed to house the Sisters of Mercy who taught in the school, the building had been rented to the Jesuits after the nuns moved out on account of their own diminishing numbers. A large field next to the novitiate where some of my confreres played football remained vacant because plans to build a parish high school there had been scuttled after Catholic school enrollment started to decline in the late 1960s.
Grateful for the time that I spent there, I hope that the students, staff, and alumni of Our Lady of La Salette School are able to find some consolation in this time of loss. I hope, too, that the legacy of La Salette remains alive even as the school's once-raucous hallways become silent. AMDG.