Merger on the horizon for Holy Family, San Francesco

LINDSAY — The arrival of a long-awaited letter from the Archdiocese of Omaha has left many residents here with further questions about what lies ahead for Catholic schools.

On February 14, the Archdiocese of Omaha announced via a letter received in the mail that it would merge grades 7-12 of the Lindsay Holy Family with Humphrey St. Francis beginning in the fall of 2024 as part of its decision on parish families .

Holy Family students will attend the school at St. Francis, and Rev. Eric Olsen said St. Francis has room to add students.

The letter from Archbishop George Lucas arrived in mailboxes and there were other documents not sent to parishioners. Both documents, including an FAQ sheet, stated that, according to the Nebraska Department of Education, there are two options regarding the merger.

The first option is for Holy Family grades 7-12 to join St. Francis, and the St. Francis name and branding, including school colors, logos, mascot, and signage, would be retained. The second option is Holy Family Grades 7-12 and St. Francis Grades 7-12 merge into St. Francis but create a new name and branding of the school.

“The two school communities and an archdiocesan-provided advisor will determine the best merger option for grades 7-12,” the FAQ sheet states.

The merger will include “all aspects of middle and high school life,” according to the letter. This includes sports and all extracurricular activities.

Olsen said the cost of the rebrand, if chosen, could be paid for through donations or as a budget item. The archdiocese will hire a consultant to help both communities and schools through this process.

Deacon Tim McNeil said in an email Monday that a consultant would be hired sooner rather than later: “We have not set a date. Both school communities will need to select planning committee members.”

The archdiocese held meetings with parishes and, in April 2022, announced that the Rural Family G Family of parishes would include Holy Family, St Francis, St Michael in Tarnov, St Mary in Leigh and Sts. Cyril and Methodius in Clarkson. Platte Center is grouped with the three Columbus parishes and Duncan Parish is in Rural Family I.

The creation of parish families is the direct result of fewer and fewer priests.

At the time, McNeil said, “The numbers show that within the 23-county Archdiocese of Omaha, there are 105 active priests, and there are projected to be 84 priests by 2032, based on two ordinations in the year. This means that there will not be enough priests to cover all parishes”.

The shortage of priests is being driven by a few factors, including smaller families, which create a shallower pool to draw from, McNeil previously said.

“I think it is a reflection in all denominations of a decline in the life of faith, as there are fewer and fewer people who outwardly and daily practice their faith, and this reduces the number of potential priests even more,” he said.

There are also fewer parishioners.

“I think our mass attendance has dropped 42 percent since 2003,” he said.

In his letter, Archbishop Lucas said: “Although the Way of Faith focuses on parishes first, our schools are deeply connected to this process. The reason for this is that our schools, which have been a huge boon for generations, are supported so strongly by our parish communities. Just as we wish to flourish for our parishes, we wish to flourish for our schools”.

He also wrote that the decision to merge came through local consultation.

“After consulting locally on the question of the future of Catholic education in north Platte County for the past year, I have come to the decision that now is the time to merge grades 7-12 of the St. Francis Schools at Humphrey and Holy Family to Lindsay in a secondary school, in order to position Catholic secondary education more securely in the coming years”.

The merger will involve all aspects of middle and high school life, the archbishop said.

“The future of both schools is only together. Their geographical proximity offers a unique opportunity to ensure the blessing of Catholic education for future generations by pooling resources,” she said.

The archbishop’s letter goes on to say that Olsen will lead a planning team from both schools to work on the merger. He wrote that the merger is also underway due to the national teacher shortage, which has affected St. Francis and the Holy Family.

“In many schools, this has led to an increase in creative solutions, including the use of virtual learning. Our schools are to be commended for their resourcefulness and ingenuity in tackling these issues of our time,” she said.

McNeil said the proposal is required by December 1, 2023, so implementation can happen for the fall semester of 2024.

Olsen said not to seek change.

“It has been my wish to see the two schools come together on some level. The evidence can be seen in the surveys I have asked communities to respond to, along with the cooperation between the two schools with one-act activities and talks,” she said in an email.

“The Journey of Faith planning committee includes members from both communities. The recommendation on schools presented by the Journey of Faith committee was to keep both schools separate, NO CHANGES. This recommendation comes from the wishes of members of both communities,” he wrote in an email.

However, the merger will face serious problems.

“A presentation provided to communities in August outlined the current reality of priest shortages in the archdiocese and teacher shortages across the state. This merger will also allow the pastor to be more visible and present to the 7-12 students and teachers who will be in one building,” Olsen said.

Olsen wrote that school leaders will meet with the superintendent of schools soon to formulate a plan for next steps, which will include selecting members to join the merger committee and potential advisors to assist in the process.

Archbishop Lucas’ letter said there would be an employee retention plan.

“There will be opportunities for staff from both buildings to continue working under the merger plan,” Olsen wrote. “With teachers properly endorsed in their subject areas, we see an opportunity for more optional offerings for students.”

If teachers chose to leave either school system, there would be an internal assessment of whether to replace them, he continued. As for the two principals, another school within the family of parishes – St. John in Clarkson, an elementary school – has a teacher facilitator who runs the school.

“There will be talks about increased engagement with St. John’s School and having one of our two principals more busy with administrative duties on St. John’s,” Olsen said.

Moving forward, Olsen said audiences would be engaged.

“A successful merger plan would include some level of government support. The selected consultant will assist us in how audience input is gathered,” she wrote.

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