How St. Mary's Notched a Deal to Stay Open — For Now

Extraordinary efforts saved the all-boys Catholic school in Dutchtown after the archdiocese slated it for closure

Dec 14, 2022 at 7:00 am
click to enlarge St. Mary's Statue
In September, the archdiocese slated St. Mary's High School for closure, but the school has secured $3 million in support and plans to stay open.

For Bryan Turner, September 27 began like any other day. Turner, 41, is a creature of habit. As a teacher, basketball coach, assistant athletic director and parent, he works 12-hour days jam-packed with school and practice before action-figure playdates with his son. Turner keeps his schedule the same, every morning, so when the uncontrollable happens, he doesn't lose control.

That's how September 27 started. He woke at 5 a.m., made his Starbucks coffee in a French press, cooked breakfast burritos next to his wife and walked his Maltese dog named after a favorite WWE wrestler. Then he drove his 10-year-old son to school, listening to Christian hip-hop, and drove another 30 minutes back to St. Mary's High School, listening to Nas. He arrived at 8:30 a.m. and worked in his office — his "home," as he calls it, lined with his favorite unopened WWE action figures.

At 12:45 p.m., 15 minutes into a class discussion of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens, he got the email. "Important," the principal began. "All staff meeting today at 2:50."

"That right there," he says, "just made my heart drop. I felt everything in my stomach starting to tighten up."

Turner looked outside his door. He made eye contact with the teacher across the hall, who later said she felt sick. They knew what might be coming. He had been at St. Mary's for seven years. He'd heard the rumors. Everyone had. St. Mary's, they feared, would be the next Catholic school to close.

Still, Turner didn't think that decision was coming. Not in the middle of the school year. Not to an institution like St. Mary's, which serves 216 boys on a gorgeous 27-acre campus in St. Louis' Dutchtown neighborhood, a school with back-to-back state football championships, over 90 years of history and 12,000 alumni — some of the most famous in the city, including former Mayor Francis Slay and auto dealer Frank Bommarito.

Later in the afternoon, in front of teachers and staff members, school President Mike England broke the news: The Archdiocese of St. Louis was closing St. Mary's in eight months.

click to enlarge Bryan Turner, a basketball coach for St. Mary's says his stomach dropped when he got an email calling for an all staff meeting the day the archdiocese announced it planned to close the all-boys high school.
Bryan Turner, a basketball coach for St. Mary's says his stomach dropped when he got an email calling for an all staff meeting the day the archdiocese announced it planned to close the all-boys high school.

Turner felt blindsided — by the announcement, by the timing, by the uncertainty. "My first thought," he says, "was why us?"

But Turner couldn't show his emotions. "Lead beyond pain," he preaches. He still had basketball practice and a soccer game. He told his players they could go home if they wanted. He shooed away reporters. He tried to answer every phone call and text until he couldn't take it anymore —and he uncharacteristically turned off his phone and fell asleep around 8 p.m.

The next morning, his son overhead the news as Turner informed his in-laws. His son grew up at the school, attending summer camp, neighborhood service days and practice. He was waiting, Turner says, "to be a Dragon."

"St. Mary's is closing?'" his son asked.

Then he burst into tears.

"I had to just hold him and hug him," Turner recalls.

But it was 7 a.m., and school started in an hour. Turner put his coffee in the French press, made his breakfast burritos, walked his dog, drove Nate, organized a practice plan and told his class what he always told them.

"I'm here," he said, "'til the wheels fall off."

click to enlarge Kameron Hurst in the hallway at St. Mary's.
Kameron Hurst in the hallway at St. Mary's.

One month after the announcement in early November, Bryan Turner draws a circle on the whiteboard and writes the word "victim" inside of it.

"That victim-itis virus is more contagious than COVID," Turner warns the students. "It's more contagious than the flu."

About 10 freshmen sit inside a classroom meant for 20. It's a sleepy post-lunch class. Kids in green polos lean on their elbows, scrunching their faces, grabbing at their Crocs, scrolling on their Chromebooks. The normalcy is jarring — just a normal classroom, normal kids, doing normal high school things, in a school where no one yet knows if it will be open next year.

It's fitting, then, that today's lesson is about control. Turner reads from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens. "This is why we need to stop worrying about things we can't control and start worrying about things that we can," Turner says.

He shuts the book and looks out to the class.

"So that's a life lesson right there. Let's close up the Chromebooks. Because y'all all in those screens. Close them up." The students shut their laptops. "So I shouldn't be worrying about things that I can't control," he continues. "Woke up this morning — if it was raining outside, can I control that?"

"No," the class responds.

"Can't control that, right? Can you control who your parents are?"


"Can't control that, right? You can only control the things that you can control."

Turner asks the class to name some things they can't control. The weather, the kids repeat. Other people. No one mentions the school closing.

Maybe it's because the school refused to let this be the end of St. Mary's. Since the announcement, administrators have vowed to stay open as an independent school, scrambling to devise a multi-million-dollar plan to keep the school alive. "The Work is Ours," the campaign is called.

And it has achieved that goal. President Mike England wrote the RFT on Tuesday that the school "has finalized a 3-year lease agreement with the Archdiocese and a sponsorship agreement with the Marianists." The archdiocese confirmed the news.

It will be renamed St. Mary's South Side Catholic High School. This comes after the school raised $3.1 million from five separate donors over a three month span. The deal cements St. Mary's immediate future, providing it some breathing room. But the fight still remains as St. Mary's must raise millions every year to keep the school afloat — a task that has not been accomplished by other closed Catholic schools in recent years.

Turner also knows the reality of school closings as St. Louis has shrunk in size.

Before he played Division 1 basketball at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, he grew up in north St. Louis near Fairground Park during the 1980s and '90s, attending local public schools — Farragut Elementary, Williams School and Beaumont High School.

Now, all of those schools are closed. Sometimes Turner wonders if he's cursed.

"Damn, BT. I just put it together," a football coach tells Turner when he brings up this story. "You're the school killer."

click to enlarge Assistant athletic director Bryan Turner and athletic director Brocklon Chatman share a laugh in Turner's office, which he sometimes calls his "home."
Assistant athletic director Bryan Turner and athletic director Brocklon Chatman share a laugh in Turner's office, which he sometimes calls his "home."

"That's what I'm trying to say!" Turner says. "Every school I go to closes!"

But Turner is not the school killer. In reality, for decades, school enrollment in St. Louis Catholic schools has been dropping. A number of factors have played a role, including the emergence of free charter schools, a decreased interest in religious education and, most importantly, a decline in population in the city. In 2021, the total number of Catholics in the archdiocese fell below 500,000 — the fewest since the 1960s, the archdiocese tells RFT. There are 19,000 students in the Catholic school system across the metro, but space for 36,000.

The archdiocese faces a crossroads: There are too many buildings and not enough students.

Over the last 10 years, the archdiocese has closed three high schools. None have reopened. And now, the Catholic community is bracing for its largest tidal wave of closures with the archdiocese's most recent initiative, "All Things New," a multi-year consolidation plan introduced in January 2022. St. Mary's and the all-girls Rosati-Kain High School were the first cuts. But more are scheduled, with additional grade schools and nearly 100 parishes ultimately expected to close. The archdiocese hopes to raise teacher salaries and better fill its buildings with "All Things New."

What's happening in St. Louis is happening across the country. Since 1971, the number of students attending Catholic schools has dropped from 4.4 million to 1.6 million students, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. On average, 100 Catholic schools close every year, according to the National Catholic Educational Association.

Catholic schools with a higher percentage of Black students are closing at an even greater rate. Although Black students make up only 7 percent of the overall Catholic student body, they make up 18 percent of students in schools that closed, National Catholic Educational Association data shows.

St. Mary's is this kind of school, a place where the majority of the enrollment is Black and about 50 percent of students aren't Catholic. For decades, St. Mary's was a majority-white school. But around the mid-2010s, the makeup shifted — and shifted quickly. In a matter of a few years, the school became majority Black.

click to enlarge A drone shot captures the St. Mary's football field and 27 acre campus in the Dutchtown neighborhood.
A drone shot captures the St. Mary's football field and 27 acre campus in the Dutchtown neighborhood.

When the archdiocese decided to close St. Mary's, people questioned its decision to shut down another predominantly Black high school, in the predominantly Black Dutchtown neighborhood. In 2021 the archdiocese closed Trinity High School, a school with over 80 percent Black students in Spanish Lake. The second school on the archdiocese's closure list this year, Rosati-Kain, is another school with a large Black population. In St. Louis there are just two African American priests and zero Black seminaries, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports.

The archdiocese wrote to the RFT that many factors went into the decision to close St. Mary's, including "current enrollment and enrollment trends, school capacity, percentage of school expenses covered by school families (tuition/fees), archdiocesan funding, and location/proximity to other Catholic schools. ...

"This decrease in enrollment has reduced the amount of income from tuition revenue to pay for teachers, staff, operating expenses and building maintenance," Father Chris Martin, vicar for strategic planning, wrote to the RFT.

Enrollment at St. Mary's has been tumbling for years. Founded in 1931 as South Side Catholic High School, the school had nearly 1,100 students in 1946. By 1964, that number dropped to 883. By 2021, that number was 270.

But school President Mike England says money is the main reason for the closure. About 92 percent of St. Mary's students are on financial aid.

Serving everyone, though, is the institution's mission. "The true essence of the school was what was important to my heart," he says, "which is making a quality Catholic education accessible to all students, especially those that cannot afford it."

For years, the archdiocese has carried the brunt of St. Mary's operating costs, England says. He explains that his school needs $18,000 per student to stay afloat. But the tuition is only $11,000 a year — and few families even pay that much. This means the archdiocese spent between $1.2 and $1.5 million annually on the school, England estimates. (When asked about the role finances played in the decision to close St. Mary's, the archdiocese again pointed to enrollment and proximity to other schools, Bishop DuBourg High School being the closest, about three miles away.)

"I understand they have lots of financial obligations," England says. "Their business decision here was that they can't afford to give us that money anymore. I accept that. That's their decision. I appreciate all that they've done to get us to this point.

"But now, we've got to put that money together. We've got to put a plan together. And that's what we're doing right now."

click to enlarge From left: David Leonard, St. Mary's starting quarterback and Myles Hawkins discuss work in class.
From left: David Leonard, St. Mary's starting quarterback and Myles Hawkins discuss work in class.

Just like their mom, Kayla Williams' kids are shy. It takes time for them to feel comfortable in public and to dance and laugh and act like the "goofballs" they are at home. Until they feel settled, they won't say much.

That's part of the reason Williams chose St. Mary's for her three boys. Despite being a St. Louis native, she had never heard of the school, a majority-white Catholic school that wasn't very good at basketball.

That is, until a basketball coach approached Williams' oldest son, Yuri Collins, then a middle schooler at Compton-Drew. He suggested that Yuri and his parents check out St. Mary's.

Williams agreed, but she felt nervous. She didn't know how to feel about her son attending an all-boys school 45 minutes away from their home in north county. Quickly, though, she felt comfortable. While the archdiocese fretted over declining enrollments, that's what attracted Williams to the school.

"I love St. Mary's because it's small," she says. "They get the one-on-one; they get the help that they need."

Yuri went there first, emerging as an elite basketball player, leading the Dragons to a state championship appearance in 2019 and earning a basketball scholarship to Saint Louis University. It set off a cascade effect in her family. Her two younger boys and a nephew followed. It took time for Williams' youngest kids to adjust. But now, a few years in, they're starting to get more comfortable — they're starting to find their "groove," Williams says. One plays football, both play basketball, and Williams' sophomore is the star of the basketball team.

Then the archdiocese closed it. Williams got the email as she sat at work. She had no idea it was coming.

When everyone got home that night, Williams, her husband and her kids sat around the dining-room table. They went through potential options. What if they transferred to this school? Or that school? Surely plenty of schools would want their basketball and football talents. Coaches were already reaching out. They could play anywhere in the city.

"We talked about different schools and where they would like to go," she says. "And they couldn't come up with anything. And I couldn't come up with anything."

She stressed about it for days. "It was like, 'What am I going to do? Will I have to divide my boys up and send them to different schools?'" she says. "And, you know, I didn't want to do that. I just wanted to keep the school thing going."

While St. Mary's has scrambled behind closed doors to create a plan, teachers, parents and students have had to do the groundwork. They've dealt with months of uncertainty, without any clue if their school would stay open this year or the next or the next. For Williams, that meant just waiting. For Turner, that meant teaching about control and making the not-normal seem normal. 

"If they see me in here energized, happy to be here, then they're gonna be happy to be here," Turner says of his students. "If they see me down, hearing rumblings of, 'Man, coach is checked out,' well, they're going to check out. So I'm just trying to be as positive as possible around here for these next couple of months."

click to enlarge The wrestling team practices at St. Mary's.
The wrestling team practices at St. Mary's.

For, junior David Leonard, Williams' nephew, that meant listening and trusting Turner and the other teachers. He says that the kids at school talked about the closing. But their coaches and teachers tried to shift their attention away from it. They tried to get them to stay focused on the state championship, schoolwork and the things in front of them.

"We just [took] it day by day," Leonard says. "You never know. Anything can happen. So we [were] just staying prepared, for real for real."

Leonard, who grew up just a few blocks away, dreamed of going to St. Mary's. As a kid, he snuck under the tall gates, throwing spirals with his friends, pretending to be the starting quarterback of the St. Mary's Dragons.

A decade later, he is the starting quarterback at St. Mary's, recently leading the Dragons to back-to-back state titles. He hopes to attend college, play football and study something in aerospace. But before then, he doesn't want to leave St. Mary's. "The school," he says, "is like a family." He doesn't want to stop attending his neighborhood school or dissecting animals in his favorite zoology class. He doesn't want to wear his good-luck charm, a paper name tag, on another jersey. He wants to stay at St. Mary's.

"[My mom] said we're just going to pray, hoping the school stays open," he says. "Just keep praying. That's all."

But they don't need to pray anymore.

click to enlarge Zamier Collins and Kaliel Boyd on the bus headed for a basketball game.
Zamier Collins and Kaliel Boyd on the bus headed for a basketball game.

As Eric Ford walks next to an abandoned brick building in Dutchtown, there's a bang. And another bang. There's no one around, and the street is empty except for piles of crunchy leaves, on a Tuesday at 5 p.m. in October. Ford, a longtime Dutchtown community member, doesn't pay much mind to the noise. He just points up towards the nearby building: the ghost of Cleveland High School. Someone must be inside, he says.

Cleveland High School, just half a mile down Grand Boulevard from St. Mary's, might as well be a castle. Perched on top of a hill, it takes up 10 acres and two full city blocks. It's a piece of art — constructed in 1915 as the city's largest public school with two towers and sculptures of people's faces carved above the entrance. There's ornate brass inside, a swimming pool, and a gigantic theater with a balcony that looks like it deserves to be inside Powell Hall.

But Cleveland closed in 2006. Sixteen years later, the school remains empty. Now, Ford says, "it's just an eyesore." Windows are punched in and debris sits next to the school. Trees grow from the floor, parts of the roof are caved in, wooden floors are curving from leaked water, basketball backboards are smashed and the walls are ripped apart. In 2020, a fire erupted in the school that required over 60 firefighters. "I don't think there's a copper pipe in here," Ford says.

Despite the news that the school will stay open for now, it's future is far from certain. This is just what worries neighbors —another vacant school in Dutchtown. And especially St. Mary's, a sprawling facility that looks more like a college campus, with a school building, church, basketball gym, football field, baseball field and lots of green space in between.

"[Dutchtown] is kind of on the edge in my opinion," 13th Ward Alderwoman Anne Schweitzer says. "Big catastrophic things like the school closing can't happen to Dutchtown. This is an area that needs something like an infusion of resources –– not resources to be taken."

If St. Mary's closed, it would mean three former school buildings within a five-block radius on Grand. (Scruggs Elementary, between St. Mary's and Cleveland, closed in 2010 but has been repurposed.) In a community where nearly 25 percent of properties are vacant, it represents a threat to the progress in the area, even if it is somewhat uneven progress.

"Dutchtown is a place where the strength of diversity and urban grit really shines through," Dutchtown Main Streets President Nate Lindsey says. "But it's also a place where you can put a magnifying glass on St. Louis' past policy failures that have resulted in a concentration of poverty and wealth extraction."

Community members say that, as much as the neighborhood is on the brink, it could also turn a corner and become a blueprint for revitalization in St. Louis, a place where you see all kinds of different people on the streets. You'll see a quaint commercial strip on Meramec Street with a local drugstore, taco shop and a thrift store that, together, make it look like small-town main street. You'll see the words "Dutchtown" and "Together We Grow" painted on concrete barriers. You'll hear soccer games at Marquette Park, church bells from St. Anthony's and neighbors stopping each other on the street to say hello.

click to enlarge Ja'Ki Williams and Tylon Horton in the hallway at St. Mary's.
Ja'Ki Williams and Tylon Horton in the hallway at St. Mary's.

But it's a neighborhood, a largely Black neighborhood, that has suffered from severe disinvestment for decades. Another school closing, people worry, could turn the area in the wrong direction.

"It's a problem anywhere there's a giant vacant school building," Schweitzer says. "In areas like Dutchtown, where, man, it is struggling to find its feet. Dutchtown has so many people who are dedicated to its success, and then something terrible will happen, and it just is like a slap in the face to all of the people who are trying so hard to improve it."

At first, St. Mary's seemed to resist the largely Black neighborhood around it, remaining a majority-white school in the mid-2010s.

But over the years, the school made more of an effort to become a part of the community. It started the Day of Service, where students spend a morning cleaning the neighborhood. It joined the St. Joseph Housing Initiative, where students help renovate vacant Dutchtown homes that are later sold to first-time homeowners.

To England, the current president, nothing was more representative of the school than the tall gates that surround the property. They seemed to keep out people in the houses around the school, telling them that they are not welcome. As a school that prided itself on being "southside," this was not the message it wanted to send.

"We're here to serve this area," says England, who arrived at the school in 2013. "We have to make it clear to the people who live around us that they're welcome here, we want them here."

click to enlarge School president Mike England was so stressed in October that a blood vessel burst in his eye.
School president Mike England was so stressed in October that a blood vessel burst in his eye.

Mike England's eye is bright red.

"You might see my eye, it'll get better," the school president said in October. "But I think that's just stress. It's been stressful and sleepless nights."

One month after the closing announcement, England speaks from his office, where a picture of the grandparents who helped fund his Catholic education and a copy of The Broken Heart of America by Walter Johnson sit on his desk. He speaks slowly, with lots of pauses, and intense eye contact. He says he's not stressed about the school closing; he's stressed about having to save it so quickly, in a matter of three months.

Like everyone, England has his own story to tell about the day the archdiocese said it would close St. Mary's. "I was shocked," he says, pausing for emphasis. "Shocked."

England, though, pretty quickly came up with a bold proposition: He wanted to keep the school open.

It wasn't as simple as saying, "We want to stay open." Keeping the school open would require operating as an independent school, creating a nonprofit organization and developing a governing board that could handle fiduciary responsibilities — all things the archdiocese previously did.

It would also cost a lot of money.

England and a team of alumni calculated it would take about $2 million per year to keep the school open — $10 million over five years. St. Mary's would have to raise the money itself.

But within three months — before even soliciting donations from the public — the school had already raised over $3 million, mostly from five separate donors.

Even before the archdiocese confirmed it would lease the land to the school, England was optimistic. "I think that there's gonna be a rainbow at the end of this thing," England says. "It's just riding through the storm right now, to get to the rainbow that we need."

He was right. The school will be open for the next three years, representing an unprecedented turnaround and a miraculous dash to save the school. But the long-term future is still not set in stone.

A big donor could pull out. The cost could exceed the estimates. Enrollment could continue to fall. They could, simply, not raise enough money.

Take the example of St. James the Greater. The archdiocese closed the Catholic elementary school in Dogtown in 2016. Backers pulled together enough money to keep it open for two years. Then the school closed.

But don't tell that to Mike England. He won't take that. They've already secured $3 million, and they plan to get more, he'll say. They have a five-year plan. They want to increase enrollment through initiatives like adding more trade classes. They just won back-to-back football state championships. And despite the archdiocese's announcement, they have received 40 applications for next year's freshman class.

At the end of the day, St. Mary's can't close, he says. "It's too important." England will repeat it, over and over again, until his eye turns red.

"We can't go away, we're too important," he says. "We're too important to the young men that we serve. And we're too important to this neighborhood."

click to enlarge A view of St. Mary's athletic facilities and football field from the steeple of its on-campus church.
A view of St. Mary's athletic facilities and football field from the steeple of its on-campus church.

On the opening night of the St. Mary's basketball season, the crowd is itching to make some noise. The green bleachers, sitting under decades of championship banners, are filled to the brim with parents, students, community members and football players, who are waiting to receive their state championship medals. A woman stands on the sideline, hopping up and down during defensive possessions. "D-up! D-up!" she yells.

But the St. Mary's team just can't seem to string together a few baskets against the much-taller John Burroughs. Every cheer dies quickly. Turner, in a white St. Mary's polo and bright green shoes, paces the sideline — occasionally jumping on the court, when the ref isn't looking, in a defensive stance to rile up his team.

Then it happens. Late in the first half, with St. Mary's trailing, a Burroughs player launches into a fast break. Out of nowhere, a St. Mary's player comes flying from behind. He rockets into the air and swats the lay-up out of bounds.

The crowd erupts. "AHHHH!" It's deafening. Screaming, hollering, clapping, pounding. The bleachers shake. Parents hold their hands above their heads. Kids rub their heads in disbelief. Turner runs onto the court. "We ain't coming here to play!" a woman yells from the crowd.

A senior watches the game from the back of the bleachers. He lounges against the wall, taking it all in. At the time, no one knew exactly what the future would hold for St. Mary's. And they're still not certain it will be open after three years. But the vibe in the school, he says, has never felt depressed. Look around. The gym is bursting with energy. It feels like a school that is alive — or at least fighting to stay alive. And that's for one reason, he says, gesturing to the students.

"We," he says, "make it lit."

Coming soon: Riverfront Times Daily newsletter. We’ll send you a handful of interesting St. Louis stories every morning. Subscribe now to not miss a thing.

Follow us: Google News | NewsBreak | Reddit | Instagram | Facebook | Twitter