Despite protests by hundreds of students and alumni, officials at St. Thomas Academy in Mendota Heights have decided to phase out the school's Latin program after decades of teaching the classical language.

"It's absolutely unconscionable, especially in light of the … traditional values of St. Thomas," said Matthew Sindt, a 2003 St. Thomas alumnus.

The Catholic boys' military prep school has seen a "precipitous decline in enrollment" in its Latin classes over the past decade, said Brian Edel, director of St. Thomas' Upper School, even though the school requires students to take three years of a foreign language.

During the next school year, the school will offer only upper-level Latin courses. In 2020-21, no Latin will be offered in the classroom, but administrators are considering online options.

Edel estimates that Latin enrollment has dropped by 50% since the 2007-08 school year, with fewer students staying with the language after finishing lower-level classes.

He said he believes the numbers are declining not only because the subject is difficult, but because more students prefer to learn a familiar language such as Spanish.

"We're always responding to changing interests of our families," Edel said. "We need to do it for the overall health of the school."

Amy Murphy, who has a son at St. Thomas and a daughter at its sister school, Convent of the Visitation School in Mendota Heights, said enrollment in the past five years has held steady. There are 43 students taking Latin at St. Thomas this year, she said, including girls from Visitation across the street.

"As parents, frankly, we were quite surprised that the program was going to be sunsetted," said Murphy, who organized parents to save the Latin program. Dropping Latin, which she called a pillar of the Catholic faith, "is a significant loss" for a school she loves.

"Our children talk about their experience in Latin class more than any other topic," she said. "They're able to draw from their Latin learnings and apply it across subjects."

Edel said he didn't believe cutting Latin will weaken the school's commitment to Catholicism. Administrators will review the decision in the future, he said. "While Latin … has significance in the Catholic church, it's not foundational to being a Catholic school," he said.

The change comes as more charter, private and Christian schools across the metro area turn to what is called "classical education," which can include Latin instruction.

About 1,000 people, including alumni, parents and students, signed petitions to maintain Latin classes at St. Thomas. Many pointed to veteran Latin teacher Mitch Taraschi as key to helping them appreciate the language.

"It breaks my heart," said Caitlin Stollenwerk, a 2009 Visitation graduate who started one of the petitions. "The crux of the matter is that the Latin program at St. Thomas Academy is unique and at the top of its class."

Stollenwerk enrolled in Latin for four years and said she often struggled with it, but that it helped her to understand Western civilization and do well later as an English major. She predicts the school eventually will want to re-establish its Latin program and will have to catch up to other private schools.

Will Treacy, a 2017 graduate, called the decision "disheartening" and said that Latin helped him become a better Catholic. He wrote school administrators that he had attended his first Latin Mass in college "and was struck by the beauty, beauty that I could more fully appreciate because of my years under Mr. Taraschi's tutelage."

Sindt said students won't be able to understand the school's motto — "Ex Umbris In Veritatem," or "Out of Darkness into Truth" — without Latin knowledge. He said he wants administrators to create an endowment so alumni can contribute to the program's future.

Edel said opposition to cutting the program wasn't unexpected and that there's an upside to the controversy.

"Our parents and alums are so invested in the school," he said. "In a way it's heartening that they feel strongly about one of our programs."