Venango Catholic High School will close

Venango Catholic High School in Oil City will close at the end of this school year.

The news was announced Friday by members of the Venango Region Catholic School Association in a press release from the Diocese of Erie.

“I share in the pain of all who are affected by the decision,” said the Most Rev. Lawrence T. Persico, bishop of the Erie Diocese.

“Closing a Catholic school is the last thing anyone wants to see happen,” Persico added. “But despite the significant efforts of the community, we could not ignore the realities. Enrollment and budget goals can no longer be met for the high school.”

Persico, who has consistently advocated for Catholic education in the Oil City region, stressed that St. Stephen School in Oil City will remain open for students in pre-K through grade 8.

Seventh- and eighth-grade students have been at Venango Catholic for the last four years but will return to St. Stephen next school year.

The press release indicated that plans are in place to provide financial support for building upgrades and repairs at St. Stephen along with the installation of a playground there.

This is the second time Persico has been faced with a tough decision involving Venango Catholic during his time as bishop.

Back in February 2016, Persico announced the school would close after graduation that year due to several factors.

That announcement set in motion non-stop efforts by a Save VCHS group that first convinced Persico to suspend his decision for 30 days and then to eventually change his mind.

He came back to the school in May 2016 to announce VC would remain open after studying the Save VCHS group’s business plan for the school to remain viable.

But enrollment at the high school has dwindled in the years since, and last June, in response to the challenges Venango Catholic was facing, the diocese’s Catholic Schools Office outlined several goals that needed to be met to secure the future of a Catholic high school in Oil City.

One of those goals included an increase of students enrolled at the high school level to reach a minimum of 20 students in grades 7-8 and 40 students in grades 9-12.

Another goal was to have $600,000 in hand by the end of 2023 to ensure the school could meet its ongoing financial obligations.

Ray Feroz, the interim president of Venango Region Catholic School (VRCS), told the newspaper in December some special recruitment events were held around the Venango and Clarion county region to try and attract students.

But despite those efforts, Venango Region board members reported last month to Persico and other diocesan education leaders that enrollment had dropped since last June to 32 in grades 9-12 and 15 in grades 7-8.

“And despite significant efforts made by the school board, administration, school families, volunteers and donors, the financial goals also fell short,” the press release said.

The board reported it had reached a high of $462,003 prior to work that needed to be done on the Venango Catholic roof. The reserve now stands at $348,642.

Feroz had earlier told the newspaper that numerous fundraisers had been held in an attempt to increase the money on hand.

“We cannot emphasize enough that we recognize the heroic efforts the community has made in order to keep a Catholic high school in Oil City. We also acknowledge the dedication and generosity of administrators, faculty and staff at Venango Catholic High School,” members of the VRCS association wrote in a letter to school families and staff in January, indicating a final decision was imminent.

A timeline and process of next steps will be shared with the community in the coming days and weeks, the press release said.

Plans also will be shared with faculty and staff regarding their benefits as well as transitioning to other employment.

In addition, Feroz has said the immediate and longer-term concerns of students will be addressed throughout the spring.

“Students have always been our priority at VCRS, and this decision does not change that fact,” Feroz said. “As we look to a future that differs from what we had hoped for, it is very important that we allow them to work through their emotions.”

Feroz said he is also “committed to making sure students, faculty, staff and families honor the 62-year legacy of Venango Catholic High School and bring this final year to a conclusion that we all can cherish.”

The diocese, which owns the facility and its property, said in the press release that it plans to explore the possibility of selling it and using a portion of the sale to create a fund to help support St. Stephen School.

The VRCS association has authorized the school board to begin immediate remediation regarding a leak in the roof at St. Stephen, water issues on its ground floor and updates to its kitchen.

In addition, a $40,000 grant has been secured to build a playground that will be installed at St. Stephen in preparation for the 2024-25 academic year.

Venango Christian High School, as it was known at the beginning, opened in September 1962 with more than 400 students in a brand new school building on Oil City’s West End.

The opening of VC had been about four years in the making since the diocese purchased 55 acres in the West End in 1958. The school was built on 10 of those acres.

The concept of a regional Catholic high school in Oil City had been conceived by John Mark Gannon, archbishop of the Erie Diocese at the time.

And the new 400-foot-long brick structure had become a necessity because St. Joseph High School on the North Side was no longer big enough by the late 1950s to accommodate the growing number of students enrolled there.

So St. Joseph closed its doors at the end of the 1961-62 school year, and hundreds of students have graduated from VC in the more than six decades that have followed.

Enrollment reached its peak levels throughout the 1960s and for much of the 1970s.