Parishioners at an East Valley Catholic church with roots dating back nearly 100 years are pushing beyond the power of prayer to help save its school.
Officials at Queen of Peace Catholic School, 109 N. MacDonald St., Mesa need to raise $125,000 by March 15 in order to keep the school open for another year or it could close at the end of this school year, according to Betty Nardelli, assistant principal, who has taught kindergarten there for 23 years.
Queen of Peace school officials were told last month by the church's pastor, the Rev. Charles Goraieb, that the parish no longer could afford to help subsidize the school. The school, described by those closely connected with it as a tight-knit, family-oriented facility, was formally established at its current location in 1942 and constructed in 1945, according to a dedication plaque near its entrance.
"We've got to do something," Nardelli said. "I don't want to see it close. I love this place. There's a lot of second- and third-generation families here. We're reaching out to constituents and alumni to help raise funds and try to keep it open. Because of hard economic times and demographics, a lot of families cannot afford a Catholic education anymore."
The school, which has 155 students in pre-K through eighth grade, 10 full-time teachers, a part-time librarian and a gym teacher, is independent of the diocese and has been facing declining enrollment for the last several years, Nardelli said. Last year, Queen of Peace had 178 students - down from 200 three years ago.
The school and church are multicultural, with a large Hispanic population among its 2,600 families. The school also provides English-immersion and tuition assistance to students through the Catholic Tuition Organization.
Queen of Peace Church's roots go back to 1912, when the Franciscan brothers started Sacred Heart, a mission church on North Country Club Drive south of Main Street. Sacred Heart merged with Queen of Peace decades later.
In a heavy push to reach their goal, the school will hold its annual dinner and silent auction at 6 p.m. March 19 in the Madonna Hall adjacent to the church. The silent auction will feature dinners for two at Valley restaurants, autographed sports memorabilia and vacation packages.
Two years ago, the school proposed an expansion for the 10-classroom campus, and has raised $400,000 since then as it partnered with the Shea Foundation on a capital campaign. However, with the possibility of the school shuttering its doors, the fund's account has been frozen. If the school were to close, the funds would be returned to the parties who donated the money. Since the school is independent of the diocese, the diocese would not be eligible to get any of the funds, Nardelli said.
Joe Kostur, who lives in Apache Junction and volunteers in the school's kitchen, said he has been driving his daughter, a fourth grader, to attend school there since she was in the first grade.
"This really took us by surprise," Kostur said of the announcement of the school possibly closing. "This is a good school. I'm hoping we can come up with the finances to keep it open."
Alex Villalobos, 18, a freshman taking film classes at Mesa Community College, was walking around the school campus on Thursday with a video camera. Villalobos, who was baptized at Queen of Peace, had his first communion there and was confirmed there, said he plans to produce a four-minute video about the history of the school and post it on YouTube so more people know about it. He also attended the school from kindergarten through the eighth grade.
"I know every kid here and all the teachers," Villalobos said. "This place is a family. I wouldn't want to see it close."