METHUEN — Presentation of Mary Academy will permanently close at the end of the school year, halting its 60-year tenure of Catholic high school education in Methuen, according to Provincial Assistant Sister Janice Perrault.
The co-ed school is situated near separate housing for nuns on the historic former Edward Searles Estate, at 209 Lawrence St.
Teenagers and nuns have worked closely together there since 1958, when the Sisters of Presentation of Mary opened the college preparatory school.
Perrault announced in early September that the portion of campus that houses 38 nuns will be closed and the nuns relocated. She said at the time the high school would not be impacted by their departure because only two nuns worked at the school.
According to Perrault, there were several decades during which more than 100 sisters were living on the property, taking care of it and operating several ministries.
But over the years, the number of sisters has declined.
Thursday morning, Perrault described a similar trend at the school. She cited low enrollment and the need for widespread tuition assistance as contributors to an "ever increasing deficit" and decision to shut down PMA.
Not enough students
Records kept by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education quantify drastic declines in enrollment at PMA over the last two decades.
During the 2001 to 2002 academic year, there were 294 students enrolled, according to records. There are currently 184 students who attend.
Enrollment only increased during a few school years spanning 20 years. That was in 2012, when PMA became co-ed and boys started attending, records show. The student population went from 147 to 188.
The year after that enrollment jumped to 200, then to 222 the following year.
The decline started again in the 2015 to 2016 academic year.
An employee at the school Friday said tuition for this year is $12,300 per student. The employee could not speak to tuition trends over the last several years and said no one else was available to comment.
Demographic trends provide "little hope" for increased future enrollment in the high school, according to Perrault.
A 16-year-old junior heartbroken by the news started an online fundraiser Thursday with the hope of re-writing the future of PMA. She collected $205 in the first 12 hours.
Emily Le wrote on her GoFund Me page, "I should be looking for which college I should be going to in two years, not worrying about what high school I should be going to next year."
She wrote, "It is absolutely heartbreaking to even think about graduating with complete strangers next year."
Along with her pleas for donations, Le provided a montage of photos from her three years at PMA: Upperclassmen donning caps and gowns, her basketball team, lunch with friends and laughs with teachers.
A letter to parents and students from Head of School Rose Marie Redman and St. Helene Cote explained how the sisters have contributed more than $2 million in the past three years to support the school. But it wasn't enough.
"Financially, this is impossible to continue because this funding is desperately needed to provide for the retired sisters whose demographics require the careful management of resources to assure their ongoing basic care," the letter read.
The school will host a fair of local Catholic schools on campus soon, according to the letter, so students and their families can discuss options with local admissions directors.
The future of the estate
The historic property at 209 Lawrence St., valued at nearly $12 million, belongs to the Sisters of the Presentation of Mary, according to city records. As a religious organization, they do not pay property taxes.
Director of Economic and Community Development Bill Buckley said Thursday that preliminary conversations began between the sisters and city officials in September, when they publicly announced their departure from the former Edward Searles Estate.
The decision followed "a process of future planning" with the help of consultants from Plante Moran CRESA, a commercial real estate adviser, Perrault said.
At the time, she said there was no timeline in place and that plans were first being made to find new homes for the sisters.
Besides housing for the sisters, the 24-acre property will also lose its health-care facility and administration offices for the religious community. A cemetery for the sisters also is located on the property.
"The study over the past year has confirmed that the cost of maintaining the Sisters section of the campus in Methuen is financially unsustainable," Perrault said at the time.
The area is zoned "conservancy," aptly named for the strictest zoning designation in the city. Other areas zoned the same way include municipal property, like school buildings and wetlands, according to Buckley.
"The zoning district itself has pretty significant limitations on the ability to develop and re-develop," he said.
The sisters are still reviewing what re-use and re-development potential exists on their properties, Buckley said.
He elaborated that "there are very few uses that are allowed within the conservancy district."
He assured that the city and community "will certainly have a role in what will happen next."
There are currently no formal proposals submitted to the city for the plot.
"At this time we should also be thankful to the Sisters of Presentation of Mary for the care...this place is meticulously preserved," Buckley said. "We should be thankful to the sisters for the past 60 years they have kept this treasure in outstanding condition."
Mayor James Jajuga described PMA as an integral part of the community for the past six decades. He praised graduates and their successes in many chosen fields close to home and globally.
"I am saddened by this decision, as are many in Methuen," Jajuga said in a statement. "The City is here to provide assistance and support in any way we can.”