Barbara O'Brien didn't see it coming.
After all, Sacred Heart Academy is such a big part of her personal history, as it is for so many others in Tampa.
She started school there as a shy first-grader, graduating 12 years later in 1962. And in those dozen years, she got a solid Catholic education by the Sisters of the Holy Names, formed a close-knit group of friends and built a foundation that would carry her through life.
She heard the news in March as she was planning her 50th class reunion: After 81 years, Sacred Heart was closing its doors for good.
"I was just sick about it," O'Brien says. "And so sad. I get why they had to make the decision, but I will never understand how such a wonderful school couldn't attract enough students to keep it going."
Last week, O'Brien and 12 others from the original class of 31 girls, coming from as far away as Arizona and Oklahoma, visited their old red-brick school on Florida Avenue one more time.
Though they are all nearing their seventh decade, the women giggled like schoolgirls. They toured the classrooms with the worn wood floors, marveled at how the gym had stood the test of time and laughed at resurrected memories of a bygone era. They talked about the dances at Jesuit High School, the boys they swooned over and the strict nuns who kept a close watch on their charges.
The last big upheaval at Sacred Heart was in 1971, when the all-girls high school graduated its last class. Now the final chapter has arrived with the closing of the grade school. There's some talk of keeping the Early Childhood learning program operating until the property's future is determined.
Theresa Davis, also part of the 50th reunion class, is still getting used to the idea. No more Sacred Heart? This is the school that put such a value on academics, she was way ahead of the other students when she went on to business college. This is where she was chosen, in her senior year, for the prestigious honor of placing the crown on the Blessed Virgin Mary statue at the school's annual May Crowning.
The one bright spot is that Davis will always have a connection to the religious order that taught her: One of her real sisters joined the Sisters of the Holy Names and is still in active ministry.
"What I got here was a gift," she says. "It's something I cherish, even more so as I've gotten older. We had something very special."
It wasn't an easy decision. But it was a necessary one.
For years, despite its high grades in academic achievement, Sacred Heart Academy has suffered from declining enrollment. Several factors are to blame: the area's demographics, the rising cost of tuition – it runs about $5,400 annually – and competition from other Catholic grade schools in the immediate area.
Sacred Heart's demise is part of a national trend. Since 2000, 1,942 Catholic schools have closed or consolidated, with a loss of 621,583 students, according to the National Catholic Educational Association. Urban elementary schools like Sacred Heart have been hit the hardest.
"It's a reluctant decision when a parish closes a school," says Brian Gray, an association spokesman. "Where the school is located makes a big difference. Across the country, we've got buildings where we no longer have students, and we've got areas with prospective students and no buildings."
That holds true in the Diocese of St. Petersburg, which oversees 25 grade schools and four high schools in a five-county area. While Sacred Heart is in its final days, diocesan officials are now in the zoning phase for approval to build a new Catholic school in Pasco County.
Its Tampa Heights location had never been that desirable, but in a struggling economy, it's even less so. The academy is on the same stretch of Florida Avenue that includes a battery reconditioning shop, a fishing tackle liquidator and a school-bus graveyard. A sprawling public housing project is a stone's throw from the school's 10-acre campus.
"The neighborhood isn't fancy. Not now, and not back then," says 1963 Sacred Heart grade school alumnus Monsignor Robert Gibbons, pastor at St. Paul's Catholic Church in St. Petersburg. Still, parents drove their children from some of Tampa's toniest addresses in Hyde Park and Davis Islands to attend the academy, which also drew students from low-income areas. The nuns treated everyone the same.
"We always felt like we were part of a bigger family here, no matter your background. A lot of attention went into creating that atmosphere," he says. "And those sisters. Who could forget them? They were marvelous educators and even better human beings."
On Sunday afternoons during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Gibbons recalls, students and parents joined staff in the auditorium to pray together and practice evacuation drills in case Fidel Castro bombed Tampa.
That extended family connection endures. On the night he learned Sacred Heart would close in June, Gibbons was enjoying a barbeque with about 15 of his former classmates. They still get together on a regular basis. It was the right group to be with in the wake of the news.
As a parish school, the academy is part of Sacred Heart Catholic Church, a downtown Tampa historic institution run by the Franciscan religious order. For about 10 years, the diocese stepped in with financial assistance, from forgiving a large debt to subsidizing teacher and staff benefits and insurance. For the current academic year, the parish – which claims about 2,800 families – had resumed full fiscal responsibility.
The numbers were grim.
Last August, enrollment was just 99 students. Some classes had as few as three children. In its heyday, the school year opened with 300 or more students.
"It went from bad to worse because parents had lost their confidence that the school would stay open. When that doubt settled in, they began looking for other schools," says the Rev. George Corrigan, Sacred Heart pastor.
Typically, a congregation devotes an average 7.5 percent of its offertory to support a parish school. At Sacred Heart, 45 percent of the collections went to the academy's $1.2 million annual expenditures. Outside support didn't come through, though. The school's alumni group closed down last year, and there was no "Save Our School" campaign by supporters.
A direct-mail marketing campaign that targeted 7,000 Catholic homes in Hillsborough County didn't boost enrollment.
In a March letter sent by Corrigan to parents, students and staff, the priest noted that because of the church's financial load, it had seen a "severe reduction" in parish savings. As a result, many of its other ministries were suffering a "lack of support in a just and faithful manner."
He wrote that the decision required a lot of prayers to know God's will and what he ultimately had to do.
"That is what it means to live a faithful life and to take the path not of your own choosing," Corrigan wrote. "Please know that I will continue to pray for our school family."
The news even caught the principal off guard. Kenn Hitchcock, a former assistant principal at a Catholic school in Lakeland, accepted the job at Sacred Heart less than a year ago.
He thought it was a fortuitous sign: His wife graduated from a Sacred Heart Academy, an all-girl's high school in Connecticut. He was in the first graduating class at Sacred Heart University in that state. And they were members of the Sacred Heart Mission when they lived in New Mexico.
He knew the challenges the school was facing but was optimistic they would find ways to overcome them.
Though it's been a short ride for Hitchcock, he says it has been an "awesome" experience, one he wouldn't trade for anything.
"I've had very little discipline problems with the kids," he says. "We have an incredible staff, and the Franciscans are the most down-to-earth people you would ever meet. This place got into my heart a lot quicker and a lot deeper than I thought it ever could."
Things have changed since the Rev. Sean O'Brien attended Catholic school in the 1960s and '70s. Back then, his mother would slip a $10 bill in an envelope and hand it to him. Give this to Sister, she would say.
"And that was good for three of us," he recalls. "She did that once or twice a year and we were covered."
The big difference between then and now is that payroll was not a factor, says O'Brien, who divides his time between parish work and teaching religion at the school. Now, as religious orders struggle with declining numbers, there are fewer priests, brothers and nuns on staff. So the schools have to compete with their secular counterparts in hiring faculty, driving up the cost of tuition.
The church's mission is to serve the poor, he acknowledges, "But there's only so much financial assistance you can give out." Now after seven years at Sacred Heart, he's preparing say goodbye to a ministry he has thoroughly enjoyed.
"When August rolls around and I'm not getting ready to come back to school, that's when it will hit," O'Brien says. "That will be hard. That will be the hardest thing."
ALUMNI FAREWELL MASS
When: 3 p.m. June 10
Where: Sacred Heart Academy school auditorium, 3515 N. Florida Ave., Tampa
What: Farewell Mass in honor of Sacred Heart Academy, followed by a light reception
Information: (813) 229-1595