NAUGATUCK — As students walked out of St. Francis-St. Hedwig School and into summer vacation last week, the mood on Church Street wasn’t typical of the last day of the school year.
There was no laughter or singing. No one was trying to get one last signature for their yearbook. Instead, some students hugged each other and told their friends how much they would miss them. Some younger students buried their faces in their parents and sobbed. Other students silently stared up at the school before filing on to the bus.
This was because June 21 didn’t just mark the last day of the school year for St. Francis-St. Hedwig, it was the last day in the school’s long history.
The Archdiocese of Hartford announced in March that this year would be the school’s last, citing declining student enrollment and financial instability.
Parent Jennifer Capozziello said the school has meant everything to her family.
“Today is just a really sad day. It is another family for us,” Capozziello said.
Capozziello’s son, Aiden, has attended the school since first grade and completed seventh grade this year.
Aiden Capozziello said the school provided a good community of people throughout his years there.
“It meant getting a good education and meeting a lot of good people,” Aiden Capozziello said.
Sarah Figueroa, whose son Isaac Figueroa finished second grade this year, said the school represented somewhere she could send her son that aligned with her values.
“It was a peace of mind sending him to a school that shared the same values as we shared. It felt like it was a good, safe place for him to come and learn and be himself,” Figueroa said.
Figueroa, who lives in Watertown, said Isaac will attend Watertown public schools next school year.
The school’s impact was even felt by students who hadn’t been there for long.
Dee Sheridan said her son, Brian Harrington, attended seventh grade at the school this year. She said the school had a positive effect on him.
“It’s been a life-changer for him,” Sheridan said.
Sheridan said Brian was in the school’s drama club and played baseball and basketball all while maintaining good grades.
“In one year it is a family for him. They have done a lot for him,” Sheridan said.
Sheridan said Brian will attend eighth grade at the Catholic Academy of Waterbury, a newly formed Catholic school that is expected to open in August.
For Dennis Cormier, affectionately known as “Mr. Dennis” by students and faculty, the school’s closing was painful in multiple ways.
Cormier, a Naugatuck native, graduated from the school in 1963 and has been working as a crossing guard for the school the past two years.
“It’s not a job, it’s just being with family. I am really going to miss my little kids. But time marches on,” Cormier said.
The Catholic school has a long history in the borough, dating back over 100 years.
According to information on the school’s website, St. Francis of Assisi School was founded in 1897 on Meadow Street and moved to the building at 294 Church St. in 1900.
St. Hedwig School opened in Naugatuck in 1914 as a four-room school with an enrollment of 200 students.
In 2011, the two schools merged to form St. Francis-St. Hedwig School, which it remained until last week.
“We have some students here that are fourth generation students and their families are still in town. I had the opportunity to meet with some alumni from 30 or 40 years back. They expressed what a loss it is going to be to the Naugatuck community,” St. Francis-St. Hedwig School Principal John Alfone said.
Alfone, who became principal in July 2017, said the school was moving forward before the decision was made to close it.
“I saw new spirit generated here this year. Involvement of the parents was significant. The teachers I have on board were enthusiastic about new plans and ideas we were undertaking this year,” Alfone said. “Everything was just looking up. It was looking up.”
Even though the students won’t be returning to St. Francis-St. Hedwig, Alfone knows they are prepared for the next stage of their lives.
“These kids are so well educated. Not just in academics, but their spiritual life, their interpersonal skills, their confidence. Those are all of the qualities I see in these kids at all grade levels,” Alfone said. “They are great attributes for students to have.”