CHICAGO -- Lisa Sowa-Downs of Hegewisch trembled with pride and more than a little regret last Thursday as her son Marty left St. Columba School.

For Marty, who just finished kindergarten at St. Columba, it was time to rejoice on the last day of school. For his mother and many others, though, Thursday was much more wrenching.

Last week marked the closing of St. Columba, a fixture in this community for 50 years. The school provided a Catholic education to more than 1,000 students in the area.

"Today is such a bittersweet day," Sowa-Downs said, fighting back tears. "This school is such a close-knit family."

She and her family live about a block from St. Columba.

Like many Catholic schools in Chicago in recent years, dwindling enrollment has been cited by officials as the primary reason for the school's closing. In the 1960s, the school had as many as 275 students. When Mary Miller, the school's last principal, came on board in 1997, that number had fallen to 160 students. This year, only 75 attended the school, which in recent years served preschool through eighth grade students.

Parents, teachers and children at the school both mourned and celebrated the closing of the school this week. Though Thursday was the last day of school, the parish also honored St. Columba Saturday with a commemorative mass and a reception in the school plaza.

For many in the school's community, the closing of St. Columba signified much more than just the last chapter in the story of their neighborhood school. The school became an integral part of Hegewisch, which now has only one Catholic grade school, St. Florian.

On Thursday, Sowa-Downs tried to take it all in for the very last time, roaming the halls, talking to other parents and students, bonding with teachers.

As she walked down hallways -- past rows of empty lockers -- she took a moment to share her pride in the school and her son.

"My son learned to read in kindergarten here," she said. "Kids don't learn to do that in every school."

Sowa-Downs could barely contain her emotions as she walked through a school where members of her family had been educated for nearly 40 years. Sowa-Downs graduated from the school in 1981 and her sister Kathy graduated from St. Columba in 1964. She insisted that her sister -- who lives in Las Cruces, New Mexico -- be here for the week.

Another St. Columba parent, Janet Pearson, led a group of younger children Thursday in various stretches in the school's courtyard Thursday morning. Pearson, though, called the school's closing "inevitable."

Seventh-grader Rick Harris, who plans to attend Bishop Noll in Hammond this fall, waited for his turn at bat as he lamented the closing of St. Columba.

"They teach you good morals here, and people have been here for so long," he said.

Meanwhile, some eighth-graders who had graduated earlier in the week had returned to the school for a softball game.

Dori Schuch, who taught preschool at St. Columba this year, said that "it hurts as much to leave the parents as the children here."

St. Columba Principal Mary Miller said the mood Thursday was somber.

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As school let out, a slight drizzle fell upon parents like Sowa-Downs who waited for their children for the last time.

"A lot of parents -- like my sister -- were hoping to see their children graduate from here," Kathy Sowa said, as she watched her nephew Marty leave the school and hug his mother.

The majority of St. Columba students will stay in the Catholic school system, though some of them will go to schools in Whiting, Hammond and elsewhere in Northwest Indiana, where families can benefit from lower tuition rates.

Several parents at the school said they were still bitter about the school's closing on Thursday. Few, however, suggested that they had lost any faith in the value of a Catholic education.

"Some parents have been unsure about where the kids would go," said Donna O'Connor. "You can't help but be bitter."

Kilian Knittel, pastor of St. Columba parish since 1994, said that there were many reasons why the Archdiocese of Chicago had to close the school.

"The Archdiocese has been running out of money," he said. "In some cases we also had only three or four students in a class here."

Even a four-year operating grant of $350,000 from the Archdiocese couldn't make a difference, he said.

Changes in the Hegewisch community contributed to the decline in enrollment, as many newer families could not afford to pay rising tuition rates, which peaked at about $3,500 a year for families who enrolled one student in the school.

O'Connor said that tuition payments for her three children got to be "higher than our mortgage."

Many other families who had long been part of the school's community either moved away or their children had grown up.

"The market for Catholic education has also changed," Knittel said. "You're seeing more interest in Joliet and the fringes of Cook County, but less in some communities in the city."

The fate of the building that houses the school is still uncertain, though it's quite possible that the Chicago Public Schools would use the space for a neighborhood school.

Meanwhile, in the school's library Thursday Sister Jelen Julita pored over spelling assignments on the school's last day.

"I'm 85 years old -- I should be in a retirement home," she laughed. "But this is where I get my energy."

Like many others, Sister Julita, a former principal at St. Columba, volunteered at the school.

"This place has helped keep me young," she said. "The people at St. Columba have a lot of heart. But it's tough to run a school on a shoestring."

Dan Baron can be reached at dbaron@howpubs.com or (219) 933-3248.

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