Both the school and the church parish bearing the name "St. Louis King of France" will close in the next nine months as the Catholic Diocese grapples with a priest shortage that has led to multiple churches shuttering and merging within the past year in north Baton Rouge.
St. Louis King of France was one of the few Catholic schools left in the northern part of the parish, but its students will be looking for new classrooms, and its teachers and staff will be applying for new jobs once the 2017-2018 academic year ends June 30. While declining enrollment and problems accepting vouchers have led to closures at other Catholic schools, the Rev. Michael Alello said the St. Louis King of France closure is tied to the church shuttering because of a priest shortage.
Both longtime St. Louis King of France attendees and Alello said the diversity of their parish — where students from more than 15 ZIP codes and across all ethnicities attend the school — is what sets it apart. People of all races and from a cross-section of neighborhoods have flocked there during the church's 50-plus year history and the school's 35-year history.
But in July, St. Louis King of France and St. Thomas More parishes started to share Alello as pastor and administrator, though each church kept its own masses and ministries, and St. Thomas More had its own parochial vicar. The Diocese confirmed Friday that the St. Louis King of France Parish church will indeed close its doors soon, perhaps even before the school recesses for the final time.
Alello said he realizes that the news will be difficult for people who have grown to love St. Louis King of France, but that widespread disappointment will not change the decision to close the church and school.
For the past 50 years, the St. Louis King of France and St. Thomas More Catholic Church pari…
"Without the parish, the school can't exist," he said.
St. Louis King of France has 283 students enrolled this year in its kindergarten through eighth grade classes. Last year, 89 percent of students at St. Louis King of France received vouchers, scholarships or participated in a tuition donation rebate program, according to The Advocate's records.
As parents try to find new schools for their children to attend, the financial help they received to attend St. Louis King of France may not be available elsewhere. Not every Catholic school in Baton Rouge accepts vouchers, and individual principals can decide whether to turn away students who can't otherwise afford to attend their institutions.
The last Catholic school to close in Baton Rouge was Redemptorist High School, which graduated its final class at the end of the 2015 academic year. The only Catholic schools left in north Baton Rouge are Redemptorist/ St. Gerard Elementary and Middle School; St. Francis Xavier; and Cristo Rey.
Sacred Heart Catholic School on the outskirts of downtown serves north Baton Rouge students, according to Dan Borné, a spokesman for the diocese.
As a parish school, St. Louis King of France differs from other local Catholic schools that are unaffiliated with churches, including Catholic High School and St. Joseph's Academy. The Sisters of St. Joseph run the all-girls school while the Brothers of Sacred Heart run the all-boys school, but no similar mechanism is in place for St. Louis King of France.
Borné also said the Diocese would not be able to run St. Louis King of France as one of its own schools, unlike it does with St. Michael the Archangel among others.
The loss of St. Louis King of France Parish comes after St. Pius X Catholic Church also closed in late May. St. Isidore the Farmer absorbed the St. Pius churchgoers, while the Hispanic Apostolate moved into the St. Pius X church campus.
"The priest shortage is the challenge," Alello said. "We are attempting to serve our people with the resources we have."
While Baton Rouge sees the effects of having too few priests and a growing Catholic population, St. Joseph Seminary College in St. Benedict near Covington had a record-high enrollment number in 2016. But the Catholic Diocese is not counting on an influx of seminarians to resolve its shrinking pastoral pool, as the seminarians are not all homegrown from Baton Rouge and will instead need to return to other dioceses.
Meanwhile in Baton Rouge, the bulk of the population has shifted south. The trend has caused political squabbles about a lack of investment in the northern part of the parish, but Borné said it has also affected where Catholics are attending mass.
A dwindling pool of priests for a rising number of Catholics is forcing the Diocese of Baton…
"We cannot deny the reality of population shifts," Borné said. "And that's really affected St. Louis King of France in terms of first its parishioners, and then its school. The commitment to Catholic education will always be there. Where it happens may change with population shifts."
Parishioners over the summer spoke of their disappointment after first hearing that St. Louis King of France's future was bleak. Marie Sylvester, a St. Louis attendee for more than 20 years, said it was hard to see an area with such a need as north Baton Rouge lose a bright spot like the church. She described coming to terms with the news as a spiritual struggle.
"We're ethnically diverse, we're financially diverse and we have a very tight group of parishioners, and we have always stuck together," Sylvester said.
Alello is hosting a parents' meeting at 6 p.m. Wednesday to discuss school options for students who currently attend St. Louis King of France. Though the parish is merging with St. Thomas More, he said, STM's school is not large enough to accommodate all of St. Louis King of France's students. Alello said he will also give an update on the closures at his Sunday masses at St. Louis King of France.