NORTH WILDWOOD - Rumor turned to reality Tuesday when students and staff learned that Wildwood Catholic High School will close for good by June 30.

Principal Richard Turco said he gathered the school's 194 students together early in the day, holding a copy of Tuesday's edition of The Press of Atlantic City, which featured a story reporting declining enrollment was threatening the high school's future.

Turco told the students he didn't know if those rumors were true.

A short while later, Father Mike Field and Father Joseph Wallace met with Turco at the school and delivered the news to him.

"I was stunned. I felt my daughter, my father, my mother all died on the same day. It is very much like a death in the family," Turco said.

Several hours later, Turco gathered the students together a second time and told them the school was closing.

"It was just very sad," said Jake Martin, 14, a freshman who like his classmates had always planned to graduate from Wildwood Catholic. "I am very upset. I don't know where I'll go."

Andrew Walton, spokesman for the Diocese of Camden, said the diocese is coming up with a plan to provide transportation to Holy Spirit in Absecon, Atlantic County, for Cape May County families who opt to send their children there.

The announcement at Wildwood Catholic left most stunned and some in tears. A teacher cried as she told a reporter news of the closing had been confirmed.

"We have to pick different schools now," said Ryan Malinowski, also 14 and a freshman, who attends the school along with her 15-year-old brother Thomas, a sophomore.

Their friend, 14-year-old Peter Yecco, summed up the group's feelings quite simply. "I think it sucks," he said.

Lizanne Martin, Ryan and Thomas' mother, was waiting for her children after school as she normally does.

She had not heard the rumors of a closing, so Tuesday's announcement was that much more surprising.

Martin graduated from Wildwood Catholic in 1985 and expected her children would do the same.

"It's very important they graduate from here," she said.

Father Field, pastor of St. Ann's parish, said late Tuesday that the decision to close was not an easy one, but finances and an ever-declining enrollment made it unavoidable.

"This is emotionally wrenching. We're dealing with people's lives," Field said. "It is very painful."

Field said that at the start of the 2009-10 school year the school anticipated having 233 students on its rolls. Instead, there were 194, a drop expected to continue as Cape May County's school-age population declines.

Walton said enrollment peaked at 376 in the 1999-2000 school year. The school can hold as many as 400 students.

Lower enrollment also means less money coming in from tuition.

"The enrollment is half your capacity, but you still have to staff it and offer programs as if fully-enrolled," Walton said.

While the school falls under the purview of the diocese, its funding comes only from tuition payments - $6,280 for a family's first child and $5,980 for each additional child - and the support of parishioners from St. Ann's in Wildwood and the Assumption Church in Wildwood Crest.

Walton said it costs more than $2 million per year to operate the high school, which first opened in September 1948.

The enrollment decline has resulted in falling revenues, resulting in a growing debt of more than $685,000 and annual deficits which are expected to top $500,000 this year and almost $900,000 next year, a burden that is weighing on both the school and its sponsoring parishes, Walton said.

Father Field, citing "insurmountable troubles," said the decision followed a period of study and review with Bishop Joseph Galante and his school advisers.

"Given the gravity of the enrollment decline and the dire financial situation, and trends indicating a worsening situation," he said, "and having considered the reality that neither the diocese nor the parish can afford the increasing debt of the high school, we have concluded that it is necessary for Wildwood Catholic High School to close at the end of this school year."

Father Field, in his letter to parents, said that families who decide to send their children to Holy Spirit or another diocesan high school will receive a tuition voucher of $1,000 per student.

He also wrote that "we will work to place faculty and staff in other Catholic schools, and, for those who do not secure employment, we will offer a severance package."

Turco said there will be no school today to give everyone a chance to cope.

Social studies teacher Tim O'Brien, a union representative for the Catholic Teachers Union, said reaction among the staff to the closing announcement was "stunned silence, disbelief."

"You hear about family and community. We truly live that here," O'Brien said. "We know we put out a good product."

O'Brien has two children who attend the school.

"I am in absolute denial," he said.

Denial was one of the many emotions parents such as Crystal Hardin, of Cape May, were dealing with Tuesday. She has five children, three attending Our Lady Star of the Sea and one at Wildwood Catholic. Her eldest son attends St. Augustine College Preparatory School in Buena Vista Township.

"I went through a Catholic education. It's a tradition, and once your family is in it, you want to keep it," she said.

Hardin attributed the closure to poor business planning and urged more to be done to encourage new students to enroll.

"This is going to be devastating," she said.

Hardin said she would likely send her daughter to Holy Spirit High School in Absecon.

Karen L. Mangold, of Cape May Court House, sent two of her children to Wildwood Catholic and now sends her son to Westminster Christian Academy, a small school in Ocean City.

The school, which offers instruction three days per week, charges about $2,000 per year, compared to Wildwood Catholic's $6,280 tuition bill.

"Tuition is outrageous," Mangold said, explaining her reasons for picking an alternative school.

George Corwell, director of education for the New Jersey Catholic Conference, said Tuesday that the nation's economic situation is contributing to declining enrollment in many nonpublic schools.

Since 2007, the number of students enrolled in the state's nonpublic schools has dropped from 180,000 to 172,000, according to state budget data. About 120,000 students of those students are enrolled in one of New Jersey's 280 Catholic schools.

Corwell was appointed in December by Gov. Jon S. Corzine as co-chair of the Non-Public Education Funding Commission to recommend how nonpublic schools and the state can better use increasingly limited funds.

He pointed to affluent communities in Bergen County where former Wall Street executives are taking their children out of private schools because they can no longer afford them.

"We're doing everything we can to convince the parents that this is a good investment for their children," Corwell said.

But parent Mary Beth McNally, of North Wildwood, said parents already do all they can to give their children the Catholic education they want them to have.

"It's expensive, but I cut back on other things to keep him here," she said of her 16-year-old son, Jimmy.

The loss of the high school will go beyond its walls.

City Council President Patrick Rosenello, who graduated from Wildwood Catholic in 1991, said the school is very much a part of the town.

"It's a very sad day for the community," he said. "The school is part of the fabric of the community."

Rosenello said he understood the disappointment and hurt the students and their families are feeling.

The only bright spot, he said, is news that the diocese will move its new combined grammar school, Cape Trinity, into the high school building, keeping the facility open in some capacity.

Father Field and Father Wallace who will operate the soon-to-be merged parish Notre Dame de la Mer, said the school will house the grammar school students who previously attended St. Raymond's in Lower Township, St. Ann's in Wildwood and Our Lady Star of the Sea in Cape May as well as a parish office and ministry center.

Parent Nick Nastasi, of Wildwood Crest, has been a vocal opponent of the plan to merge St. Ann's in Wildwood with the Assumption Church in Wildwood Crest, and he pointed to the closing of the high school as another error being made by the diocese and Bishop Galante.

"Closing the high school, the only Catholic high school in Cape May County, is ludicrous," Nastasi said.

Contact Trudi Gilfillian:

609-463-6716