Diocese of Laredo Chancellor Romeo Rodriguez met Tuesday evening with parents of students of Our Lady of Guadalupe School (OLG) — a Catholic School with a rich history that dates to 1904 — to apprise them that the school faces three choices: closure; becoming a feeder school of grades one to three to send students to St. Peter’s Catholic School for grades four, five, and six; or merging the school with St. Peter’s Academy to become Our Lady of Guadalupe School at St. Peter’s.
OLG with enrollment of 128 students, and St. Peter’s with 84, have faced dwindling enrollment and revenues and yet have managed to continue their educational mission with little fiscal help from the Diocese.
OLG, a Diocesan school, reportedly receives $3,000 annually from the Diocese and otherwise is able to remain operational through tuition and fundraising activities. The school is staffed by Principal Herlinda Martinez and nine teachers, three teacher aides, a librarian, and a coach.
Tyna Saavedra, the parent of a first grader at OLG, places great value in the moral foundation the school provides for her daughter, the third generation of her family to attend OLG. “This school is part of our family history, our legacy,” she said.
Saavedra said none of the options presented by Rodriguez were acceptable to her and others in attendance.
“St. Peter’s was apparently given an option to become a magnet school. Parents at St. Peter’s don’t want to merge the two schools, and neither do we. As parents we chose our respective schools for a reason. In my family, we have been long standing alumni. We love our schools for what they are,” she continued.
“I think Bishop Tamayo’s role focuses too much on money. That’s a widely held perception. We have felt as a community that the goal is not so much the faith and the love for Christ, it’s about money,” she said.
Saavedra continued, “This whole idea of having the two oldest Catholic schools in Laredo close their doors is un-Godly. The Diocese is willing to compromise their educational and spiritual value because they are not moneymakers. They are discounting the moral foundations they have provided countless children and the value of the education those children receive.”
She said the meeting Tuesday evening with Rodriguez made it clear the 114-year-old school was on its own. “I think his goal was to let the parents believe that there is hope that the school can remain open. He never said the Diocese would help. The Diocese is supposed to be the beacon for its schools, but instead the focus for money is on a monument that is already beautiful, the Cathedral.”
Saavedra characterized the parents of students of OLG and St Peters’ as “hardworking people who don’t demand up to date technology or new gyms. We are happy with the quality of education and the nurturing that goes with it. There lies the real wealth of an education.”
Rodriguez told the gathering that the Diocese had hired educator Blas Martinez to assess enrollment trends, school finances, facilities costs, which school is on solid ground, which school could take on a day care facility. This will tell us about their future viability. Those findings, he said would be available in mid-March so that a decision could be made at the end of March.
Saavedra continued, “The Diocese has placed us in this situation, telling us as parents that they are giving us a month to come up with a solution to keep our second home. This is a legacy school that is being completely disregarded, relegated as a dispensable part of many lives. This has destroyed my belief in humanity.”
She added, “If the school could run on love alone, its doors would stay open.
Our principal is such a good human being, one who sacrifices and places students first. She continues to be positive and turns everything into a life lesson. She is hopeful and works with prayer.”
Saavedra noted, “The value and sanctity of our religion is not what it once was, and this is visible at the highest reaches. We were advised Monday of Tuesday’s meeting. Had we been made aware of how dire the school’s finances are, something could have been done before now, but there is no transparency at the Diocesan level that is visible to us about the school’s finances.”
Christy Villarreal has a son and a daughter enrolled at Our Lady of Guadalupe School. Her father Ray Gonzalez and his three siblings attended school there.
Of the recent meeting with Chancellor Rodriguez, she said, “It feels like they waited a long time to deal with this. This has been rumored to happen in the past. It makes me feel that the Diocese did nothing to prevent what we are facing. Whose responsibility is it? It should be a Diocesan function to recruit students. It should be part of a master plan for all the Catholic schools. I don’t want St. Peter’s School to close, but the Diocese is pitting one school against another. The idea of a merger of the schools has turned people away. This is an unfortunate situation. At the end of the day, if the Bishop is not willing to support Catholic education in Laredo, I can’t support the capital campaign for the Cathedral. My children are my priority.”
Villarreal continued, “We know our retention and recruitment rates are low, but there’s a big disconnect between the Bishop and the community. The Bishop is supposed to be our shepherd. Nothing’s clear, however. Be transparent enough about finances so that we know what to do. Do we need to fundraise to clear out debt? Is it to cover overhead? Is it for scholarships to recruit new students?”
Villarreal, an adept grant writer, said she is available to write grants for Our Lady of Guadalupe School and had in the past inquired at the Diocese office for a go-ahead. “I was discouraged from even asking,” she said.
She said Rodriguez’s message was loud and clear: “The ball is in your court.”
She asked, “How hopeful is that when you don’t even know what you need to work at?”
Vllarreal concluded, “It would be good to hear from the Bishop personally. We would welcome him at the school so that he could hear for himself from the parents and meet the children. It would mean a lot to us for many reasons, including that we could begin building a stronger relationship. We want him to meet the families of Our Lady of Guadalupe who contribute so faithfully to the Diocese. Such a meeting between the Bishop and the families of Guadalupe School might assure a better outcome for everyone.”
Chancellor Rodriguez said, “There was actually a fourth option — to remain open. We respect the longstanding traditions of both Our Lady of Guadalupe and St. Peter’s schools. No one wants to see either close. No decisions have been made. We are just now gathering information, looking at ways to increase enrollment, and how we can continue. We want them to continue to exist. That’s the ultimate and the ideal.”
He continued, “They will have to shut down if they can’t stay afloat. The feeder plan that we had in mind starts with day care for children 18 months of age and older. We have also contemplated a niche school that specializes in math and science, dual language, or the arts. Increasing enrollment is a primary goal to reach the ultimate goal in Catholic education — to teach the faith.”
Asked if either of the two schools had been given a benchmark or a figure for operating costs to work toward, Rodriguez said, “We don’t have a figure, but one benchmark is to have 200 students. There has to be some vitality for a viable reason to keep either school open. We want to come up with a reccomendation early enough for people to make a decision.”
Asked if the Diocese subsidizes any of the Catholic schools in Laredo, Rodriguez said, “This is the youngest diocese in the U.S. What’s really tough is we are in a part of the country that has many financial challenges. We are a mission diocese, we are the church. The Cathedral is the mother church, and it has needs. We’re playing catch-up as a diocese. We need to take a realistic look at the schools. There have been no decisions made. We’re still assessing.”
According to Rodriguez, “The Diocese of Laredo is evolving and serving its people despite financial challenges to support its ministries.”
Attorney Armando X. López recalled that his education at Our Lady of Guadalupe School was “a microcosm of Laredo, small and intimate.” He and his four siblings graduated from the iconic institution.
“We sang in the church choir, played on the baseball team and football team. You were an actor in plays, a participant in everything. Nothing was left out. That’s Laredo. You have OLG graduates who became accountants who are part of local theater and lawyers who are artists,” he said.
“Besides what we were learning in our subjects, it was inculcated in us to live a life of gratitude, to be in constant awareness that you were blessed. That goes a long way in real life. In the comingling of the spiritual and the academic, you saw how much of the relationship of parameters of both made it into the actual construction of life. The notion of history that comes into religion and ends up as policy making in laws — I saw that dichotomy and have lived it as an attorney. The Catechism lessons on venial and mortal sins prepares you for the concept of misdemeanors and felonies.. The sanctity of the confessional speaks to privacy in the law. There are OLG alumni who have become judges, successful accountants and dentists,” López said.
He said Our Lady of Guadalupe School was the most affordable option for parents who were making the sacrifice to send their children to a Catholic School.
“We walked to school. We had fundraiser after fundraiser to keep the school going. We were all part of it, and the doors remained open. My class had 16 people in it. There was no bullying there. The nuns saw to that,” he recalled.
The school, which is adjacent to Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, was established in 1904, built by contractor Luis Quintanilla for $600.
It has been lovingly staffed by the Ursuline Sisters and Sisters of the Holy Ghost, serving, according to historian Dr. Stan Green, “the poorest of the poor.”
The school at one time had an enrollment of 300 students.
Under Bishop Emmanuel B. Ledvina, the Oblate Superiors helped run the chapel and the school and made modernization of both one of its priorities.
Along with other Catholic and private schools, OLG weathered the Mexican Revolution, poverty endemic to the borderlands, and the Great Depression. The school’s enrollment at one time dropped to 50 students.
A capital campaign that began in 1944 under Father T. Cuevas and continued by Father Francis Balzola, O.M.I., yielded $95,000 by 1948, enough to begin construction for a new school. Antonio Medina and Peter Leyendecker constructed a new two-story building, finishing it in February 1949.
The advent of the nearby housing project, the Colonia Guadalupe, spiked enrollment to 225 in 1949. An auditorium was added in 1956. In 1999, the Lamar Bruni Vergara Foundation funded improvements to air condition the school, lower classroom ceilings, and install new lighting.