Parents rally to save St. Francis of Assisi

TONAWANDA, N.Y. (WIVB) – Supporters of St. Francis of Assisi Catholic School in the City of Tonawanda held a rally Thursday evening, hoping to draw attention to their fight to keep the school from closing.

St. Francis is one of 10 Catholic elementary schools that the Diocese of Buffalo has decided to close permanently, as of the end of the 2013-14 academic year.

In addition to raising awareness, Thursday’s rally was also to raise money to help defray legal costs.

“We have just filed [an appeal] with the Apostolic Signatura in Rome, which is the highest judicial body at the Vatican,” explained Mark Saltarelli, a parent, parishioner and alumnus who is spearheading the effort to save St. Francis. “Right now, we’re awaiting word to go ahead and hire an advocate, who will present the formal appeal to that body.”

Filing the appeal costs $3,000 on its own, not counting the price of hiring the advocate and other canon law experts.
But to supporters, saving St. Francis is worth the price for many reasons, both sentimental and practical.

“I was married in the church. My wife’s very dedicated here; she teaches a religion class,” City of Tonawanda Councilman Chuck Gilbert, an alumnus of St. Francis, told the crowd. “We really think this is more than just a school. It’s part of our makeup.”

The greatest practical concern relates to bussing.

“If you live in the city, like the City of Tonawanda, the city school district is only obliged to take you to a Catholic school within the boundaries of the city,” explained Erie County Legislator Kevin Hardwick. “If this closes there are a number of parents, present and future, who will not be able to seek a Catholic education for their children.”

Because the appeals process can take several months, there’s almost no chance St. Francis will open this fall. Of the 140 students who had enrolled for the 2014-15 school year, about two-thirds ware making plans to attend public schools.

But Saltarelli is confident children will be back at St. Francis in future years.

“I’m hopeful that when this body takes a look at our reasons and why we appealed, that they will direct this Diocese to do the right thing, and to keep this school open,” he said.

A plan operate the school independently is no longer under consideration, Saltarelli said, for insurance reasons and because the cost of doing so would force St. Francis to raise tuition by about $800 per student.

Senators George Maziarz and Mark Grisanti have both written the Diocese, saying the school deserves to remain open because enrollment is up and it has a $500,000 endowment fund.

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