DANVILLE — Linda Bays can still remember feeling heartbroken when her old grade school, St. Joseph's in Danville, closed 40 years ago.
Those feelings came flooding back when she learned Holy Family School would close its doors at the end of the school year.
Friday "is going to be a very sad day," Bays said of the Catholic grade school's last day.
"There are so many memories here," continued Bays, whose children graduated from the school and grandchildren attended it up until Friday. She has served on the Home and School Board and in many other capacities since her older daughter entered kindergarten 30 years ago. "I hate to see it close. But if this will preserve Catholic education in Vermilion County and make it stronger, then I'm all for it."
This year also will mark the end of St. Paul's School and Schlarman High School. Under a recommendation from the Peoria Diocese, the three schools are merging to form the Schlarman Academy in an effort to combine enrollments and resources and ensure the viability of Catholic education in the area.
A new board of trustees and administrative team will take over on July 1. The academy will open in August and run on a traditional calendar.
While long-term plans call for housing all programs at the Schlarman campus at 2112 N. Vermilion St., the academy will operate at two sites until the building is expanded. The ninth- through-12th-grade programs will continue at their current site, and the preschool-through-eighth-grade programs will be housed at the St. Paul's School at 1307 N. Walnut St.
"We believe it will be a seamless transition," academy Principal Bob Rice said, adding students will see an expanded curriculum, including foreign language at all grade levels, and new programs and activities to enrich learning.
While the announcement of the merger came about 1 1/2 years ago and the restructuring process started soon after, Holy Family families said they didn't realize until earlier this year that their school would close so soon. While they're hopeful for the new academy, they're sad to see their school and its traditions end.
According to "Our Holy Family," by the Rev. John J. Flattery, the old St. Patrick's School Church on Chester Street, now Bryan Avenue, was converted into St. Patrick's School in 1881. The school operated there until a new one was built at the current site at 502 E. Main St. That building was dedicated in 1891. The school became Holy Family School in 1978 after the St. Patrick's and St. Joseph's parishes merged to become what is now Holy Family Parish.
"It has served generations of families," said Nancy O'Kane, a 1964 alumna, whose four children also graduated from the school and whose grandchildren attended it.
Besides offering a Christian-based education, O'Kane and others said they liked the close-knit environment and hard-working, dedicated staff.
"The teachers are some of the best in Vermilion County," said Beth Christian, whose older daughter graduated four years ago and whose younger daughter finished the sixth grade this year. "They really work with the kids and give them that one-on-one attention."
O'Kane and Bays credited 25-year Principal Peggy Croy as "being the driving force" behind increasing the school's enrollment from the high nineties to 250 in its heyday, introducing computers and other technology before many other schools did, launching pre-, after- and summer-care, breakfast and tutoring programs, continually improving the curriculum and offering field trips and other activities to stimulate learning.
"We wanted to do whatever we could to reach everyone and meet their individual needs as best as we could. That's the ministry of our church," said Croy, who thanked her staff, families, the priests and church congregation for their support. "Everybody just pitches in and does the job no matter what has to be done."
Croy commended her staff, some of whom spent most or all of their career at the school and are uncertain of their future, about keeping their emotions in check and focusing on the kids. While staff worked hard to give kids a "normal" year, they did hold a few more field trips and other special activities like Thursday's Fun Day.
Croy said several teachers put together a special yearbook and made a CD of photos throughout the year. And earlier this week, each student got to dip his or her hand in green or yellow paint and make a handprint on the wall of the main hallway. "We wanted to leave our mark," Croy said with a smile.
Croy said the parish will continue to use the building for Catholic education classes and parish events. "But it won't be the same," said Bays, who can't picture students not walking the halls or the end of Saturday Bingo, which raised money for the school. The last one is Saturday.
"In the last 15 years, I've only missed four nights," said Bays — who along with her husband, O'Kane and her husband and a few other couples — started the program 27 years ago. "But you have to move forward. We've been through (school closings) before. We'll do it again."
The Holy Family School Farewell Celebration will begin at 1 p.m. May 28 at the Knights of Columbus Hall, 310 Bryan Ave., Danville.
The event is open to the public. It will celebrate memories of Holy Family School and its predecessor, St. Patrick's School.
There will be food and drink. There also will be games and activities including a cake walk, a favorite activity of school celebrations throughout the years.
People can view photos, yearbooks and other memorabilia. They also are invited to bring their photos and memorabilia and share their memories.
People also can tour the school at 502 E. Main St. Shuttle service between the school and hall will be available.