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The final bell

Photo by Don Hoffmann/Rex McDonald Studio Father Don Wagner speaks to St. Ann's students Thursday as principal Eileen Weber looks on. The Catholic school is closing after operating for 107 years in the Wadena community.1 / 9
Photo by Don Hoffmann/Rex McDonald Studio Father Don Wagner speaks to St. Ann's students Thursday as principal Eileen Weber looks on2 / 9
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Photo by Don Hoffmann/Rex McDonald Studio4 / 9
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Photo by Don Hoffmann/Rex McDonald Studio St. Ann's teacher Shelly Steffens says goodbye to Bryce Wolff as Jackie Tellers exchanges a hug on the last day of school.6 / 9
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Photo by Don Hoffmann/Rex McDonald Studio9 / 9

Mary Ludovissie understands a tough truth -- not all communities grow but all communities change.

In the days of large families, the halls and classrooms of St. Ann's Catholic School in Wadena were filled with students. After Thursday's final day of school, they are empty.

Just as country schools were forced to close for economic reasons, St. Ann's has closed after being part of the Wadena community for 107 years.

Ludovissie and her family live outside of Verndale now and she works at St. Frederick's Catholic Church in Verndale. Once upon a time she was Mary Radermacher and her parents, Tony and Catherine, lived 3 ½ miles south of Wadena.

"There were 11 of us," Mary recalled. "There were no school buses so the parents would have to bring us to school."

The Radermachers were farmers as were their neighbors, the Breids and the Newmans. The parents shared the busing chores and the kids grew up playing together in the summer in the country and attending St. Ann's the rest of the year. It was quite a lively time in her life.

"We had a lot of fun," Ludovissie recalled.

Moving over to Wadena High School for her freshman year was no problem Ludovissie recalled, "because the whole class went over and we still had our friends."

Ludovissie remembered attending Mass for a half hour each morning before classes began. She also remembered some very large classes at St. Ann's.

Ludovissie, like many others, has seen the closing of St. Ann's coming for some time.

"The families aren't as large anymore and national attendance has gone down," she said.

Todd Uselman came from a family of 16. Like the Radermachers, they all attended St. Ann's.

Uselman now operates a building maintenance business in Wadena. He was recently in the old school portion at St. Ann's removing asbestos. Passing through the halls and rooms was more than a job for him, it was a walk down memory lane.

"I started in that school in 1963," Uselman said. "I remember father leading us in a rosary on intercom when President Kennedy was killed."

Uselman recalls burning milk cartons after school and cleaning chalk erasers by clapping them against one another. He recalls one of the sisters who taught at St. Ann's being very strict with anyone she caught cleaning the erasers by clapping them against the side of the building.

"You had to do about 100 penances for that," Uselman laughed.

Sisters of the St. Benedictine order in St. Cloud taught school. Uselman recalled that the Rev. Richard McGuire would travel with the St. Ann's basketball teams to other communities like Fergus Falls and Staples for games.

"It was a good education, a very good education," Uselman said.

St. Ann's opened in 1903 and taught eight grades until the mid-60s when it dropped to six grades. An addition to the old school was opened in 1955. In recent years, St. Ann's has taught children in grades K-6.

St. Ann's principal Eileen Weber has taught in both public and parochial schools and considers educators in both to be very devoted to their jobs.

"They both offer academic excellence," Weber said.

Weber started at St. Ann's in 2004 and was part of the decision to close the school. The goal when she arrived was to build the school's enrollment up to 60. The last two years, St. Ann's has had an enrollment of 40 but a February projection pointed to an enrollment of less than 40 kids in the 2010-11 school year. Families pay $1,100 of the cost of the children's education with the parish subsidizing the rest of the cost.

St. Ann's business manager Barb Butler said that the decision to close the present school was the most fiscally responsible one to make, but also the most difficult.

The Rev. Don Wagner was spokesman for the final decision after consulting with trustees, school administrators and Bishop John Kinney of St. Cloud.

Wagner, who grew up on a farm near Kimball, attended school at St. Ann's for three years.

"For me, it's challenging and difficult," Wagner said. "You recognize that there are many people who put in an effort. You can invite, you can go out and encourage but you can't make anyone go to the school."

Wagner is a fan of public education and feels that a strong public school says worlds about a community. While public schools cannot provide faith-based instruction by law, Wagner believes they can embody faith.

St. Ann's announced last year that the old portion of the school would be torn down. An auction sale of school equipment was held last summer. The public announcement of the decision to close St. Ann's School was made May 26.

Gillette Kempf's son Christos, 8, has been a student at St. Ann's and she had registered her son Sebastian, 6, for the first grade. The news hit her like a sledgehammer.

"I was completely caught off guard and I was very hurt and upset," Kempf said. "The public school is wonderful and it does a great job. It's a great school for most parents and children but sometimes you want a smaller, more intimate approach."

Kempf attended Catholic University and fell in love with Catholic schools. She made a vow to send her boys to a Catholic school and she intends to keep that vow.

"We were always promised a year's notice," Kempf said. "Seven days before the end of school doesn't give you time for closure."

Vacation Bible School classes will begin at St. Ann's June 7 and the addition will be used for other educational activities in the future.

Weber, who will now be looking for a new position, is engaged in helping the parents of St. Ann's students find new schools.

"It's been difficult for everybody," Weber said.