Divine Mercy Catholic Academy in Merritt Island closes to ‘merge’ with nearby schools

Parents fight for a second chance

Divine Mercy Catholic Academy in Merritt Island closes to ‘merge’ with nearby schools
Divine Mercy Catholic Academy in Merritt Island closes to ‘merge’ with nearby schools

MERRITT ISLAND, Fla. – After 57 years, plans are in place to close Divine Mercy Catholic Academy. Parents are fighting for a second chance.

Parents received an email from the church Friday afternoon containing a letter from the school’s pastor, Kenny Aquino, informing them that the school would “merge” with Our Savior Catholic School in Cocoa Beach, St. Mary Catholic School in Rockledge and St. Teresa Catholic school in Titusville for the 2021-2022 school year, citing falling enrollment, according to News 6 partner Florida Today.

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“After serious study of demographics, facility needs, parish financial capacity and consideration of all other alternatives, and in consultation with local pastors and principals, Bishop Noonan and Superintendent Henry Fortier, the difficult decision has been made to merge Divine Mercy Academy with three nearby Catholic schools,” Aquino wrote. “Catholic education will continue at Divine Mercy parish, just not on our property.”

The news sparked outrage among many parents, who said they felt blindsided by the decision.

Parents created a Facebook group, “Save Divine Mercy Catholic Academy,” and began brainstorming ways to keep the school open. The Facebook group had attracted close to 350 members by Tuesday afternoon. By that time, an online fundraiser with a $250,000 goal to keep the school running another year had raised $750, and an online petition netted over 750 signatures.

On Monday evening, almost 80 parents attended an impromptu meeting in the church parking lot to organize an effort to save the school. They called the school community their family, and said they were willing to try anything to save it.

Many parents said they felt that they weren’t given an opportunity to fight for the school, and could have raised more money if they knew how dire the school’s trouble was.

“This is my brother,” Adam Garcia said, gesturing around the parking lot. “This is my sister. I trust them mentoring my children on football fields, basketball courts, volleyball fields, because we’re all a family. For them to just shut us down with just a letter is absolutely unacceptable.”

Garcia has one child currently attending Divine Mercy and two graduates. When they saw the letter, his family cried together, he said.

“Whoever made that decision is so out of touch with the church … here on Merritt Island, they have no clue what’s really going on here,” Garcia said, and gestured again to the people around him. “These gentlemen can tell you, pre-COVID, we had something really going.”

Will Stone has been a parishioner at Divine Mercy Church since 1998. He was married at the church at 2009 and has seen four kids baptized there — a fifth-grader, a third-grader, a first grader and a baby he expects to become a future Divine Mercy student. Like many parents, he says he wants “a dollar amount and a deadline.”

“We would likely stay in Catholic education because we deeply believe in it,” said Stone.

“But we are a small percentage,” his wife, Daniella, added.

That has consequences for the Catholic church as a whole, Stone said, as its members age and church attendance shrinks.

“The Catholic Church is failing to engage young people,” Stone said. “When we close schools, we’re going to engage that many fewer kids. What’s the future of the Catholic Church if we’re not investing in our children?”

Another organizer, Mike Allen, said his daughter has “blossomed” at Divine Mercy.

“Having an empty school doesn’t help anyone in the community,” Allen said. “It totally goes against what Christianity is all about, because it’s putting a dollar figure on those kids.”

But Orlando Superintendent Henry Fortier said the decision is final. Divine Mercy has struggled with enrollment since 2010, he said. Over the past decade, enrollment has fallen from 200 students to about 137.

“It’s not a situation where you raise $200,000 and then you fix the problem, because that’s a subsidy that would be needed every single year,” Fortier said.

The school is mostly funded by tuition, but fundraising by parish members has helped keep the school afloat, Fortier said. It isn’t feasible to raise tuition because some parents already struggle to afford tuition at its current price, Fortier said. The school also can’t cut teaching staff much because it has to have a teacher for each grade level.

Fortier said he “understands parents would like a specific number,” but declined to provide one and said Brevard Catholic schools were designed to accommodate a significantly larger family population at NASA 50 years ago and enrollment has declined too much for Divine Mercy to be sustainable.

The diocese will attempt to transfer current Divine Mercy teachers and staff to positions at other Catholic schools, Fortier said.

Parents will be allowed to choose which school to enroll their children in next year, and spaces will be held for them. Fortier said the diocese began calling parents Monday to talk through their options and listen to their concerns.

“This is like a death, because (the school) is a family,” Fortier said. “There’s grief and loss, and we want to be able to be there to support them in the transition.”