After more than a century of teaching students in St. Paul’s Merriam Park neighborhood, St. Mark’s Catholic School will close its doors at the end of the school year, church and school officials said, owing to steeply declining enrollment.

Only 32 students were expected to attend kindergarten through eighth grade next year, and difficult decisions had to be made in a hurry, wrote the Rev. Humberto Palomino in a letter to parents.

“The parish has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars every year to make up the difference between tuition and the true cost of educating the students,” wrote Palomino, St. Mark’s pastor. “Unfortunately, the parish no longer has the money to continue to fund the school as it operates now.”

Palomino said Sunday that he “cried at mass today. … It was like a funeral.”

He said that St. Mark’s already had too few students when he arrived a decade ago, and that he and school officials had tried many strategies to draw families. It didn’t help that there are five K-8 Catholic schools within 3 miles, he said.

“We ran out of time,” he said.

The school’s closing won’t affect St. Mark’s thriving preschool, which has about 40 children and will continue to operate in a school wing.

The closure isn’t a surprise, said Alison Kaardal, a parent and member of the parish council acting as a media contact for St. Mark's.

“Enrollment’s been declining for decades,” said Kaardal. “Really the issue is that there are so few families that live in the neighborhood that are able to send their kids there.” When Palomino arrived in 2009, the school had close to 300 students.

But other parents said families pulled their kids after the school switched to a classical education model this year, and because of growing divisions between some longtime parishioners and the community of priests running the parish.

Kevin Adelgren, who has had three daughters attend St. Mark’s and once served on the school’s advisory council, said enrollment was about 140 last spring when Palomino announced the switch to classical education, which emphasizes the traditions of Western culture and education as it was taught centuries ago.

Adelgren said no reason was given for the shift and no public meetings were held about what it would mean. “It was a public-relations nightmare,” he said.

Almost all staffers left and had to be replaced this fall, Adelgren said. Enrollment dipped to 89 after the first quarter ended in fall 2018, he said.

Another factor, he said, were the parish factions formed over the religious community of priests and nuns that took over the parish in 2009.

The community, called Pro Ecclesia Sancta (For the Holy Church), is conservative, and Adelgren said it only wants to serve like-minded parishioners.

“This sort of exacerbated [the declining enrollment] because a lot of people felt they were being ignored,” he said. “A lot of those people simply left, and enrollment reflected that.”

Kaardal, who has three kids at St. Mark’s, said she felt that the new curriculum was sufficiently communicated but acknowledged the change was “really a stress on the school.” She disagreed that political issues contributed to the closing.

Parishioner Gene Thill, who attended St. Mark’s in the 1960s and ’70s along with his seven siblings, said it was “heart-wrenching” to see the school close. “It’s kind of like a death in the family,” said Thill, the parish’s maintenance engineer.

Thill said the parish priests “have been an enhancement” to the parish. “You can’t blame those guys for all of that other stuff,” he said, listing four other St. Paul Catholic schools that have closed in the past decade.

Palomino said that he plans to pray and think about ways that a new school at St. Mark’s might adapt to changing times.

“I have so much hope that if God wanted a school here, that school is going to flourish,” he said.