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W.Va. losing 160-year-old Catholic girls’ school

Jan. 19, 2008 @ 06:05 AM

WHEELING — A Catholic high school that has educated girls for 160 years announced Friday it will close May 31 because of declining enrollment and rising costs.


The Mount de Chantal Visitation Academy was founded in 1848 by the Sisters of the Visitation. That makes it older than the state of West Virginia, established in 1863, and the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, founded in 1850.


A total 134 students are enrolled this year, down 20 percent from last year, said Sister Joanne Gonter, who graduated in 1952. The school educates girls in grades 7-12 and runs coed Montessori preschool and elementary classes.


Mount de Chantal recently restarted its boarding program and provided transportation for students from Pennsylvania, but neither effort was enough to stem the decline.
At the same time, Gonter said, operating costs have soared. Heating costs for the main buildings and gymnasium have exceeded $11,000 a month, even in a mild winter.


The school said in prepared statement that it will work to ensure “a seamless transition to new careers and study opportunities” for both students and the approximately three dozen employees.


The eight nuns will continue to live at the property, listed on the National Historic Register, and work on other activities and ministries.


In 2006, supporters raised $750,000 in a last-ditch effort to erase a projected deficit and keep the school open. Board members had hoped to find ways to cut costs, generate new revenue and restore and renovate the historic facility.


Friday’s announcement called the shutdown bittersweet, noting Mount de Chantal had provided a solid foundation for thousands of girls.


“It is a legacy of love, a celebration of women, a leadership of integrity and sharing of God’s gifts to each who passed through here,” the school said.


Bishop Michael J. Bransfield pledged to help staff find employment, possibly within the diocesan school system, and expressed gratitude for the sisters’ work.


“Their loyal service to children and young women from West Virginia and beyond reflects the compassion and care exhibited by St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane de Chantal, co-founders of the order,” he said.


Students at Mount de Chantal could take courses at Wheeling Jesuit University, and its graduates were often admitted to college as sophomores. According to the school’s Web site, the curriculum stressed languages, English and literature, mathematics, science, history, religion and fine arts, including music.


In sports, Mount de Chantal made its mark on the state’s girls’ basketball scene: Under former coach John Rowan, Mount de Chantal went 111-22 in five seasons and sent 10 players to Division I colleges. Rowan left in January 2006.


The team was disbanded before the current season because of a depleted roster.
Chantelle Handy, a Mount de Chantal graduate who now plays basketball for Marshall, said she was saddened by Friday’s announcement.


“Basketball-wise, the program was great. ... It was a great academic school. It definitely prepared me for college,” Handy said.


Mount de Chantal regularly beat many of West Virginia’s biggest schools but wasn’t a member of the Secondary School Activities Commission and was ineligible for the state Class A championship.


“I’m certainly shocked,” said Rowan, now an administrator at a youth corrections facility in nearby St. Clairsville, Ohio. “I have very fond memories of being at Mount de Chantal and certainly it’s sad to see the events that have happened. The Mount has made a tremendous impact on many people over the 150-years plus that it served.”

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