The schoolchildren file into the pews at St. Mathias Church every Tuesday morning and do their best not to fidget.

The Rev. Stan Mader, the parish priest, encourages them as they sing hymns. He takes extra time to explain the homily. Students barely tall enough to see over the podium read from the gospel and offer prayers of the faithful.

Church and school have been united for more than 90 years in Hampton, a rural Dakota County town of fewer than 1,000 residents. But this year will be the last.

Local school leaders decided to close St. Mathias School at the end of the academic year. The decision came after the school was identified for review by the archdiocese.

"There are a number of reasons, but foremost are demographics, facility and finances," Mader wrote in the weekly church bulletin.

There are 23 students enrolled at St. Mathias School this year, preschool through fifth grade.

In small towns on the southern edge of the metro area, such as Hampton, the Catholic churches loom large. St. Mary's towers over New Trier from the hilltop. St. Mathias sits at the only corner with a flashing traffic light in Hampton. St. John the Baptist in Vermillion is a striking sight for a small farming town, with soaring arches in the sanctuary.

The towns are places where streets are named after longtime priests and church history can be found on menus at supper clubs, where Friday fish fries are as much a tradition as Saturday evening mass. Catholic schools were part of the package.

As he celebrated mass with the students and a handful of townsfolk on a recent Tuesday morning during Catholic Schools Week, the priest offered gentle reassurance about the changes to come.

"You're still taking Jesus with you, no matter where you go," Mader said to the students. "You've got this whole group of people who care about you."

The school's closing comes in the context of a larger reorganization by the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis as it deals with a projected shortage of priests, changing demographics and tighter budgets.

The change has affected schools and churches alike.

In Scott and Le Sueur counties, multiple Catholic churches are merging. St. Wenceslaus in New Prague, for example, will be receiving parishioners from St. Benedict in New Prague, St. John the Evangelist in Union Hill, St. Joseph in Lexington and St. Scholastica in Heidelberg.

In addition to St. Mathias School, San Miguel Middle School in Minneapolis and St. Joseph School in Red Wing are closing this year.

"It's kind of sad," said Irene Nicolai, 91, a cook at St. Mathias School for 22 years. "Our parish can't afford it anymore."

Families aren't as big as they once were. An aging population means fewer children enrolling in schools, both public and private.

There have been just 43 baptisms at St. Mathias during the past five to six years. Many of the local children attend public schools, and most of the current students at St. Mathias are from Farmington.

As she listened to students rehearsing in the choir loft after mass, Mary Lou Bauer said, "That's the fewest we've ever had."

Deeply rooted

The Catholic community has been strong across southern Dakota County since immigrants from Germany and Luxembourg settled the area. The parochial schools were a natural fit.

"Every town had one," said Nicolai, whose husband, children and grandchildren attended St. Mathias. "They've supported them all along."

St. Mathias School started in a converted barn. In 1925, the brick building still in use today opened behind the church with four classrooms and a convent at the back for the nuns who then taught at the school. Children who lived on distant farms could come to the school and stay for the week.

The nuns left in 1950 and, for a short time, the building served as a public school. By 1961, a new convent was built next door and the nuns returned, bringing St. Mathias back to its Catholic roots.

"It's old fashioned. It's a community," said Julie Lucking, who teaches the third, fourth and fifth graders in one room at St. Mathias. Her mother and other relatives attended the school. "It's like brothers and sisters in my classroom instead of students."

Since official word of the school's closing, she said, parents have talked of children who want to send artwork or offer the contents of their piggy banks to the archdiocese.

But nostalgia can't fight changing demographics.

The parochial school at St. Mary's in New Trier closed in 2009 after more than 100 years of Catholic education. There were 17 students the final year.

Schools near more populated areas, such as St. Joseph School in Rosemount, continue to draw students. The school at St. John the Baptist in Vermillion is also growing.

St. Mathias Church will offer $1,000 scholarships to parishioners to enroll their children in Catholic schools elsewhere.

The church will host a celebration at the end of the school year. Then the parish will find other ways to reach to children and the community, just as other churches have done when parochial schools close.

"Those towns continue, and Hampton will, too," Mader said. "There's plenty of ministry to do."

Katie Humphrey • 952-882-9056