St. Mary Catholic Elementary School opened on Murray Street in 1916, replacing a two-room schoolhouse called St. Joseph’s constructed in 1892.
Under the stern, yet loving guidance of the Sisters of St. Joseph, St. Mary became a neighbourhood fixture and stronghold of Catholic education over the decades.
This June will mark the final graduating class at St. Mary, which is closing at the end of the school year due to declining enrolment. Current students will transfer to nearby Holy Cross.
Staff, students and alumni gathered in St. Mary’s church hall on Thursday to tell stories, browse old photographs and reminisce about the school’s illustrious history.
In a video shown to an almost full hall, current students spoke about their excitement at making new friends at Holy Cross, but also their sadness at leaving behind a special place where students, teachers and clergy formed a happy community.
“I spent all my life here and I’m going to miss it,” said one student. “St. Mary’s was the best time I had in my whole life and that is why I’ll be sad to see it go.”
Grade 2 and Grade 3 teacher Dana Draaistra said she will miss getting hugs and greetings from her students as she and her colleagues make their way to class every morning.
“I have seen determination, perseverance and courage of the utmost degree, even when some of (the students’) life situations would be difficult for any adult to overcome,” Draaistra said.
Draaistra commended students for donating 100 million grains of rice to Cambodia through the United Nations World Food Program.
“They might go to a small school, but they have been mighty in their achievements,” she said.
Brant MPP Dave Levac, who as former principal of St. Mary oversaw a busy decade of renovations and the construction of an outdoor Peace Park, said memories of St. Mary will live on.
“Decisions like this are not dealt with lightly – they’re difficult decisions,” Levac said of the choice to close the school. “But this is not the end. It’s the continuation of a journey.”
Alumna Lindsay House, whose father graduated from St. Mary and whose daughter is in Grade 3 at the school, recalled that Levac would often don a red clown nose, pick up a guitar and lead the students in sing-alongs.
House is proud that three generations of her family were part of the St. Mary community.
“There was a welcoming, family feel here,” she said of her school days. “It was a good feeling that (Alyssa) would get her education at the same school I went to.
“I will always count myself grateful and more enriched for my time here, both as a student and a parent.”
“This school helped shape the beginning of Catholic education in Brantford and I know that this Catholic community will continue the tradition of hard work and support for years to come,” said Brant-Haldimand-Norfolk Catholic District School Board chair Cliff Casey.
The St. Mary building boasts an access ramp and elevator and will continue to be used by the board in some capacity, said principal Kevin Wendling.
Staff and students hope that, before St. Mary closes for good, they can find a time capsule buried somewhere on the school property. The time capsule was dug up and reburied after the school’s 75th anniversary and again when the Peace Park was built, but no one can quite remember where the treasure trove ended up.