Students walked the halls of the St. Paul Lutheran Church and School for the last time Wednesday. The north Omaha school will soon close its doors after 132 years.
Principal Linda Tripp gave a teary goodbye to students, their parents, faculty and the congregation after a morning celebration in the church sanctuary.
“We just trust that the Lord’s presence will go with them,” Tripp said. “I don’t really see this as the end. We’re just looking forward to all the seeds that were planted here and seeing them grow as the children grow.”
Tripp cited low enrollment as the main reason for the closure.
“We’re down to about 45 students,” Tripp said. “We function as preschool through eighth grade, but this year we had no eighth-graders enrolled.”
Pastor William Moorhead said that in addition to low enrollment, unpaid tuition played a role.
“We have a lot of tuition that we never managed to collect, and that’s part of it, too,” Moorhead said. “I’m not criticizing anyone, these families have their challenges here. I’d say over a decade we’ve probably had over $130,000 in uncollected tuition.”
The 9.8-acre property near 50th Street and Grand Avenue is listed for $2.8 million.
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“We’re not interested in going out of business altogether,” Moorhead said. “Our primary concern is this is a big place, and it takes a lot of money to run it. Over the years, we’ve become an older and smaller congregation, but we’re going to try to stay relatively close.”
Moorhead is unsure where the congregation will land but said they plan to stay east of 72nd Street, where the church sees a need.
Founded in 1887, St. Paul Church has had several different locations in northeast Omaha over its history, including near 28th and Parker Streets, where it stayed for 21 years before the 1913 Easter Sunday tornado leveled the building. A new building was established at 27th and Evans Streets. Then, 45 years later, the St. Paul Lutheran Church and School moved to 5020 Grand Ave.
Moorhead said that when he first came to Omaha in 1977, there were four Lutheran schools east of 55th Street. St. Paul will be the fourth to close.
Jared Smith has made plans for his three children, who have attended the school for two years. They will attend another private school next year.
“The staff was knowledgeable, and they have heart,” Smith said. “You can tell they really enjoy what they do. I wish they would continue. It is sad it is moving and everything, but we have, in our kids, a little piece of what they’ve deposited.”
James Fitzgerald, who teaches sixth, seventh and eighth grade, said he’s not surprised the school is closing.
“I’ve seen the numbers dwindle over the last years,” Fitzgerald said. “Our kids come from families that are so different than when I grew up. We have kids that have lots of siblings, different parents, single parents. The need has been so great here. I feel like the Lord put me here at the right time to do what I can for a lot of these kids.”
Fitzgerald taught at St. Paul Lutheran Church and School for seven years and was one of five full-time teachers, including Tripp, who taught in addition to serving as principal.
“It really chokes me up,” Tripp said. “We’ve seen so many kids do wonderful things. It’s amazing to see them grow.”