With bright red sneakers, blue and white jersey, and two front teeth nearly as big as its eyes, Lebanon Catholic’s mascot is recognizable to any student or sports fan, current or former.
On and off for seven years, Jake Scholl has been the man inside the Lebanon Catholic Beaver suit: at sports games and pep rallies during normal times, and more recently to greet seniors at their houses on college decision day. Even though he graduated four years ago, the school has often turned to Scholl — a member of the Class of 2016 whose mother works in the school office — to bring the same energy he brought to the mascot role as a high school sophomore.
“[It’s] not so much to relive my high school years,” he said. “They come to me for that … they know that because I love that school so much, I would do anything for them.”
But Scholl’s time in the beaver suit may be nearing its end. On April 28, Bishop Ronald Gainer, the leader of the Catholic Diocese of Harrisburg, announced the closure of both Lebanon Catholic — a Pre-K through 12 school with around 300 students and over 40 staff members, initially founded in 1859 — and Holy Family Consolidated Catholic School in Berwick. A diocesan press release cited long-standing “enrollment and financial challenges” as reasons for the closure, which was approved by the bishop after a recommendation from area pastors, whose parishes support the school financially.
According to a FAQ posted by the diocese, these challenges included nearly $3 million in accumulated debt and a projected decline of around 100 enrolled students over five years, from 370 in 2015 to less than 300 for the 2020-21 school year.
Although it is difficult to pin down the exact reason for the decreasing number of students at the school, overall enrollment in Catholic schools has been on a nationwide decline. Data from the National Catholic Educational Association for the 2018-19 school year indicates an 18 percent drop in nationwide Catholic school enrollment over the previous decade. The number of students enrolled in Catholic schools reached its peak in the early 1960s, with approximately 5.2 million students nationwide, according to the NCEA — a number that stood at just 1.79 million in the 2018-19 academic year.
Even though the declining student numbers were ultimately a major factor in the decision of the diocese to close Lebanon Catholic, the school’s size also served as a defining aspect of students’ experience — a feature that some alumni consider to be Lebanon Catholic’s biggest asset. Without being prompted, each of the eight alumni and one current student interviewed by LebTown emphasized the school’s size and described the school community as “a family”: small, tight-knit, and supportive.
According to 2013 alumna Sydni Chapman, her graduating class had around 40 students, making it relatively large compared to the grades below hers. Monica Pastal, a member of the Class of 2015, said her senior class had only 16 students in it.
“It’s so unique having the same people in your class, possibly from kindergarten to high school to graduation,” Chapman said. “It does become like a family, even though it’s like any other school — there are people you’re close to, maybe there are people you get along with — but in the end, graduation still felt like everyone went through something really important together, even if maybe we weren’t on the same page the whole time.”
Unlike Chapman and Pastal who attended the school from kindergarten to senior year, Olivia Giansanti attended a total of three high schools before graduating from Lebanon Catholic in 2016. Despite attending only for 11th and 12th grade, Giansanti said she ultimately considered Lebanon Catholic her home.
“There was definitely a sense of school pride that I enjoyed,” Giansanti said. “It wasn’t like a mindless school pride that you might find at a public school that’s kind of just like, ‘Woo, we have a big football team!’ Because at the end of the day, we didn’t have a football team. We enjoyed being a family and supporting each other. We could make up for each other’s weaknesses, almost.”
For Maddi Reigle, a 2017 alumna who transferred from public school in eighth grade after undergoing severe bullying, being in an environment where everyone knew each other’s names was crucial to her.
At her old middle school, Reigle said, teachers didn’t know students’ names unless they directly taught them, and no teacher had ever asked if there were any issues when her grades began to drop due to the bullying she’d experienced. Within her first week of transferring to Lebanon Catholic, both her classmates and the faculty “immediately embraced” her, she said, and multiple teachers checked in on her to make sure she was adjusting well to the school. As she continued at the school, the support persisted.
“No other school is going to provide them that level of support, the genuine care for your wellbeing,” Reigle said. “You don’t get that anywhere else.”
Reigle’s classmate Jessica Bassili agreed. Also a 2017 graduate, Bassili stressed that each person at Lebanon Catholic is treated as a “name … not a number,” unlike at the larger school she’d previously attended.
In Bassili’s view, the diocese treated Lebanon Catholic and the decision to close its doors as “as a small business transaction, rather than a life-changing, life-impacting Catholic school.” Bassili, who began attending the school in seventh grade as a non-Catholic student, is now seriously considering life as a religious sister.
“It’s not a number in the diocese registry of funds,” she said. “It’s a family, and … if you haven’t been through that, you really don’t understand it.”
Others expressed frustration over the local pastors’ role in the decision to shut the school’s doors. Chapman noted that one of her classmates posted on Facebook that she would look for a new parish to attend outside of the Harrisburg diocese. Elizabeth Leedy, a member of the Class of 2019, said her family was considering that as well.
In its initial Lebanon Catholic FAQ, the Diocese of Harrisburg explained that the decision to close a school is a “lengthy and prayerful” process that is “taken very seriously by the involved pastors and the Diocese.” In the specific case of Lebanon Catholic, the diocese noted that the financial issues the school faced “are long-term realities that can’t be resolved with short-term fundraising.”
An updated FAQ from the diocese posted in early May acknowledged the importance of the school, while offering a more detailed picture of the school’s and local parishes’ financial woes. According to the FAQ, seven Lebanon-area parishes have paid nearly $1 million total per year to support the school — just one of the parishes’ financial responsibilities among many others. Due to rising operating costs and declining student numbers, it became necessary for the parishes to devote higher percentages of their income to the school, and the diocese — which filed for bankruptcy in February — could no longer afford to offer loans to the parishes and the school.
“A Catholic school is much more than a building where learning math, science and reading takes place,” the FAQ reads. “Catholic schools are a community, building a strong faith and strong academics. Catholic schools are about far more than money. However, there must be a stable financial foundation so the school can deliver its mission.”
Beyond the warm atmosphere, the small student body created opportunities for students that were less achievable at larger schools, Chapman said, such as playing on sports teams without having to try out or becoming an editor for the school newspaper. Similarly, Reigle noted that the opportunity to participate in the annual spring musical and to be cast in leading roles were formative experiences that allowed her to come out of her shell.
Not all students saw the small environment as a plus. Hervinah Celestin, a 2018 graduate, described mixed reactions among her classmates upon the announcement of the school’s closure. While some were saddened or disappointed by the news, others were less so — some even celebrated the school’s demise, she said. Celestin chalked these reactions up to the school’s relatively “sheltered” environment.
“If you don’t have friends or connections outside of this Lebanon Catholic bubble, you can definitely have the same views as the people who are teaching you and the people that are in it,” she said. “Once you leave, you realize there are other points of view out there. That’s why some of my classmates and why some other people really hated it — because they didn’t really get outside influences all that often.”
Celestin added that she herself didn’t always enjoy the small environment but still “cherished how small it was, because it was like a family,” and is not happy at all to see it close.
Most of the alumni interviewed by LebTown recalled hearing rumors about the school closing when they were students, given the low enrollment and knowledge about the general state of the school’s finances. Chapman remembered whispers of potential closure while she was in school, and recalled that a teacher had told her class that such rumors had been swirling as early as in the 1980s.
Still, last month’s announcement — particularly the revelation of debt — came as a surprise to many. Current junior Katie Martel said that she had gotten the sense that everyone in school had an idea that Lebanon Catholic had financial problems, but she and her fellow students had envisioned a closure “in the far future, and not… now.”
Recent alumni echoed this.
“When I was there, obviously enrollment was low,” Pastal, Class of 2015, told LebTown. “But it has always been smaller, so I feel like I was kind of just on the hope that the community [and] the parishes would do what they can to keep it going, because I thought it was necessary to have in the community. But I don’t think I ever thought about it just because I didn’t want to. I mean, it was a school — I never really considered a school closing.”
Pastal is one of eight siblings who attended Lebanon Catholic — her youngest sister was set to graduate from the school next year. Both of Pastal’s parents attended the school, and four of her nephews are current students.
The announcement also hit Leedy, a member of the Class of 2019, especially hard due to family ties. Like Pastal’s sister, her younger brother is a member of the class of 2021.
“We’ve known for a while now that the possibility of LC closing was imminent, we just didn’t know it would happen this fast,” Leedy said. “We kind of thought that they would have at least a year, maybe two left. We still thought that [my brother] would graduate. But finding out that this had happened so suddenly, that was just a punch to the chest. It took a while for it to really sink in, but when it did, it wasn’t pretty.”
Following the bishop’s announcement of the closure, a group of Lebanon Catholic community members mobilized almost immediately to save the school, collecting thousands of dollars in pledges and urging the diocese and local priests to reverse their decision. A May 2 socially-distant rally of hundreds to show support for the school was Scholl’s latest appearance as the LC mascot. (If the school does close its doors for good, Scholl said he has already gotten permission to keep the beaver suit.)
According to a post on the “LC Strong” Facebook page on May 8, the Bishop has since ruled out the possibility of Lebanon Catholic remaining open as a diocesan school. Still, the Board of Directors and several other “experienced community members” have banded together to form a committee charged with developing a plan to continue Catholic education in Lebanon, according to the LC Strong website. The committee gathered community feedback through an online survey of 316 parents, alumni, and other members of the Lebanon Catholic community, and they are currently exploring options for the future with that feedback in mind.
Among recent alums, levels of optimism about preserving the school in some form are varied. Scholl and a high school friend reached out to talk show host Ellen DeGeneres for help as soon as they heard the news of the closure; Giansanti thinks a resurrection is unlikely due to the financial effects of the pandemic and the small size of the community; Pastal said she’s just trying to stay positive during what is a generally trying time for everybody; Reigle is holding out hope for a financial miracle.
“I pray every day that there is a millionaire somewhere who is going to see this and buy it out,” Reigle said. “I don’t think that’s really gonna happen but, you know, I hope.”
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Full Disclosure: Asha Prihar is an alumna of Lebanon Catholic.