By Jeff Noble, Staff Writer
St. Camillius Academy, a center of learning, inspiration and life in Corbin for more than 100 years, will close its doors for good in May.
The private Catholic school, which sits atop a hill in East Corbin and serves 83 students from Montessori to 6th Grade, will shut down at the end of the current school year.
The decision to close was made Tuesday by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Lexington, which has operated St. Camillus for the past two years. Diocese officials told school officials that financial reasons were to blame for the closing.
It was Diocese Superintendent Tim Weaver who came to Corbin to tell the school about the closing. He first met Tuesday morning with Terry Newquist, the principal of St. Camillus. Then Weaver spoke with teachers in the afternoon, and later met with the school’s board in the evening.
It was Newquist who told the students the news on Wednesday.
“The superintendent came down from Lexington and said it was a financial decision from the diocese. We’re still in shock, to be honest. Our school council is just not willing to give up. We’d like to save the school, that’s what we have to look at. But we’re overwhelmed by this news right now,” Newquist said at her office Wednesday morning.
She added the reaction from the students was what one would expect, and that some were very upset by the news of the school’s closing.
“It’s been a tough day. That’s because we really are a family here. The staff, the faculty, the children and the parents are one big family. I know every student by name. The kids start here in Montessori, and they only have one class per grade up to the 6th Grade. The parents drop their kids off in the morning, talk to each other in the car lane, and pick them up in the afternoon. And everyone knows everyone else’s kids. This is a very close-knit community. Very much here at St. Camillius,” Newquist noted.
The operation of St. Camillus was part of a three-year agreement between the diocese and the Sisters of Divine Providence, who own the school and property. Based at St. Anne Convent in the northern Kentucky community of Melbourne, the Sisters have played a major role in St. Camillus since its beginnings in 1908.
Corbin and 50 counties in central and eastern Kentucky belong to the Diocese of Lexington, which was established in 1988. It was formed from parts of the Archdiocese of Louisville and the Diocese of Covington. The Most Reverend Ronald W. Gainer is Bishop of the Diocese of Lexington.
In a phone interview, Weaver said the contract to run St. Camillus had provisions, with one in particular addressing the school’s finances.
“One of the provisions was that we could terminate the contract, due to financial reasons. Two years ago, the school had around 130 students. They’ve lost students since then but picked up a little this school year. And it cost $268,000 to cover all expenses in the two years the diocese has operated St. Camillus. Last Friday, I met with the Sisters in Melbourne, talked to them about the situation, and they agreed to close the school. They are not able to continue the school on their own, either.”
Newquist noted the agreement for St. Camillus to be run by the diocese was to keep the school in operation.
“The population of the Sisters (of Divine Providence) was declining, and they couldn’t afford to run the school. We’ve had declining enrollment over the years. We’re not unique. Most Catholic and private schools are struggling right now. That was the hope to keep the school going, to have the diocese run the school. As for the property, it’s owned by the Sisters, so it will be the Sisters who will determine what happens to the property.”
A call Wednesday to the Sisters of Divine Providence in Melbourne, Ky., was not returned.
News of the school’s closing came during Newquist’s first year as principal. Like many who work at St. Camillus, she’s been with the school for years, which reinforces the sense of family that she has with students and staff.
“My oldest daughter is 22-years-old. She started here when she was 3-years-old. That’s how long I’ve been here at the school. I’ve done every job there has to be done at the school. Drive the buses, clean the toilets, work in the cafeteria, teach, of course, and now principal. I know this school like the back of my hand.”
When the shock of the school’s closing dies down, Newquist said those who want to save St. Camillius will begin to get together, to find ways to prevent its shutdown. Next Tuesday the school will have a parent meeting at the school at 7 p.m., to keep parents informed on what’s happening, and listen to ideas they may have.
Even with the clock running down the days until May, Newquist, and others who are a part of the school, say they’ll hold out for hope.
Holding back tears, she said quietly, “We can’t see where it is right now, but we still have hope. As one of our board members said last night, ‘If God wants this school to be open, it will be open.’”
Reactions and recollections on St. Camillus closing
By Jeff Noble, Staff Writer
The drive up the hill to St. Camillus Academy was a somber one Wednesday morning.
At the top of the hill, in front of the buildings where students have classes, and in front of a fountain, there is a statue of St. Francis. He has a bird perched on his right shoulder. With his left hand and arm, he comforts a lamb, as the saint looks down.
Combined with the news that the school will close in May, and the cold, rainy day that hung over Corbin like a thick blanket, the saint’s looking down was especially poignant.
For those parents who have children going to school there, the pace of life was a little slower and sadder Wednesday. That’s because their children were told the news of the closing that morning.
And for those who remember an earlier, simpler time, thoughts of the school’s closure brought back moments where the hill to the school was a racetrack for a day. Or when they recalled a story read by the nuns at the school.
“It’s a very sad day. Nobody wants to see St. Camillus leave. It’s more than just a school,” said Pam Mills, of Corbin.
Her 8-year-old son is in the 2nd Grade there, and it’s his fourth year at the school. In a phone interview Wednesday, Mills called herself “a very active volunteer parent there,” and said the closure of St. Camillus is even sadder because she feels the people who work there were what she called, “there for the right reason.”
“My son and I get a lot of support from the school, educationally, spiritually and emotionally. They’ve been a second family to me. If more people knew about the quality and about the attention they gave children, they would send their kids to St. Camillus. We’ll do everything we can to keep it open,” noted Mills.
It was a sad day for Scott Webster, too.
He and his wife have an 8-year-old boy in the 3rd Grade at the school. Webster is also secretary of the school council, the board that heard the news of St. Camillus’ closing Tuesday evening.
“At first, I wasn’t very hopeful about keeping it open, because the Lexington Diocese made the decision that they’re not getting involved,” he said Wednesday.
But Webster also sees a possible way to prevent the closing. He calls it, “strength in numbers.”
“There are thousands of St. Camillus alumni out there, and I don’t know how involved they are, but I’m hoping they’ll pull through. … I think it can be can be run independently, by a group of prominent individuals, or a church, or another Catholic organization. I don’t think the diocese would oppose this.”
Webster pointed out what he called one of the school’s strengths — its size — as a way to get people to send their children there.
“The bottom line is if people knew the education and experience the kids get there, which is like a good private school in the United States, there would be a waiting line to put students at St. Camillus. It may take a big step to do it, but I think there’s hope it can be done.”
Before Willard McBurney was mayor of Corbin and before he became an adult, he was an East Corbin boy who discovered the trip up the hill brought pleasant memories and some fast-movin’ times at the school.
“I especially remember the early days when it was a boarding school. Us East Corbin kids would go up there. In the summer, the nuns would make us lemonade and read to us. In fact, that was where they read Mark Twain’s book ‘Huckleberry Finn’ to me. We also used to make soap box cars when I was growing up, and at the school we raced our cars going down the hill. There wasn’t as much traffic there as it is now, so when we’d race, we’d have ‘the St. Camillus Derby.’ It was back in the days when the Soap Box Derby in Akron, Ohio, was a big deal.”
In a phone interview Wednesday, McBurney added he was also fond of the original building that housed the academy, which was torn down in June 2008.
“It stood high over the hill, looking over Master Street, and it was a splendid structure. That old building, like the school, has been a part of Corbin all my life. The school brought quality education, and anytime you lose a learning institution of their caliber and quality, you hate to see it shutting down.”
For Raji Patil and her family, the closing in May of St. Camillus will be a void that needs to be filled.
“I was there today when they told the kids the school was closing. It was very sad. Everybody was in tears. The teachers, the students, and some of the parents. People were trying to figure out what happened, and what would happen next,” she said Wednesday.
Patil and her husband have two children who go to the school. Their 7-year-old is a 2nd Grader, while their 5-year-old is in Kindergarten at St. Camillus. She also serves on the school board, and heard the news of the closing before the students.
Patil said the initial shock of the news that night at the school board meeting would eventually give way to what she hopes will be action.
“When the superintendent of the diocese announced it at the meeting, we were in utter shock. Then after a few minutes, we all rallied around the idea of hope. … Our two children love the personal attention with the smaller classes. They get to interact with the older and younger students, and they love the attention they get from teachers. It really is a family atmosphere there. We’re hoping that we can get grants and donations to keep our doors open. I like to think of this as an investment in our future by keeping the school alive. I’m hoping this won’t be the end.”
A BRIEF HISTORY OF ST. CAMILLUS
St. Camillus Academy in Corbin had its beginnings in 1908, when the pastor of Sacred Heart Church, Rev. Ambrose Reger, O.S.B., established a parish school and placed it under the direction of a lay teacher. He requested help and services of the Sisters of Divine Providence, and it September of that year, Sacred Heart School opened with 23 students, most of them non-Catholics.
By 1910, the number of students had steadily increased and three years later, Father Ambrose Reger couldn’t support the growing school, and there were requests for a high school to be established. On September 8, 1913, the Sisters of Divine Providence began an academy, known then (and now) as St. Camillus Academy. It was open to elementary and high school students in a Laurel Street residence.
More students attending meant a bigger building, and in 1914, a 35-acre tract of land overlooking what’s now Master Street was the site of the new academy building. The structure was dedicated on May 19, 1915. Designed by David Davis, the new building was “strikingly beautiful in structure and setting.” Built in a French chateau style, it gave a commanding view of the city of Corbin.
The first graduation there was held June 7, 1917. The building was enlarged with an annex that included a chapel, a library, and two classrooms in 1921.
It was 1972 when construction was started on a one-floor open school building to accommodate an enrollment of 300 students in grades 1-12. Classes began there in September 1973. In September 1985, the first Kindergarten class was opened with 14 pupils. That same year also saw a new computer lab opening for high school students. A Montessori class was added to St. Camillus for the first time in 1992. Four years later, a decline in enrollment and increasing expenses caused the high school to close.
In recent years, a larger building housing the cafeteria, along with other rooms and offices was completed in 2004. In June 2008, the old academy building was demolished. In 2011, the school dropped 7th and 8th Grade Classes.
And on January 15, 2013, the Diocese of Lexington announced St. Camillus Academy would close in May, at the end of the current school year.
SOURCES: “History of St. Camillus Academy” at school’s website, www.stcamillusacademy.cdlex.org; and Times-Tribune archives