Tears and prayers as Milford's St. Gabriel School closes its doors

There was hardly a dry eye at St. Gabriel School in Milford Friday at about noon, when teachers, staff and students prepared to walk out of the school doors for the very last time.
In the words of one fourth grader, “It’s like a funeral.”

Parents, students and teachers learned in January that the school, founded in 1965, would be closing at the end of the school year due to declining enrollment and financial issues.

Officials told them in January that the school closure was a parish decision, and not one made by the Archdiocese of Hartford: For the calendar year ending Dec. 31, 2015, St. Gabriel School had a $111,709 operating deficit, and declining enrollment was making financial matters even worse.

Officials said costs to maintain the school had risen, and declining birth rates within the Archdiocese of Hartford suggested continued declining enrollment.

On Friday, it was a fourth grader named Taylor who compared the last day of school to a funeral. Taylor and her classmates all raised their hands when asked if they were sad; many of them were crying.

“This was the best school ever,” said Elliana.

“Everybody here is like my family,” said Leni.

“The teachers here are equal to my parents,” said Molly. “The students are equal to my siblings.”

Approximately 140 students attended St. Gabriel School this year, which offered Pre-K to grade eight. School Principal Dr. Gail Kingston said about half will go to public schools next year, and half will go to different parochial schools in the area, including St. Mary’s — the last of what was once three Catholic grade schools in Milford.

Although some of the grades had already graduated before Friday, the remaining students gathered at 12:15 p.m. in the gym, and Kingston gave them all a stuffed animal wearing a St. Gabriel School shirt.

“We want to give you something you will always remember us by,” she told them.

Then they sang a special school song, “I Think You’re Wonderful,” a song that teacher Cathy Collins said the principal often played for the students.

Dr. Kingston said the teachers helped keep the students upbeat, letting them paint all the windows in their classrooms with special messages. Painting the windows wasn’t something they got to do often, so it was special, Kingston said.

It wasn’t just current students at the school Friday: Some former graduates stopped in for a final look at their old school.

Alexandra Ende, 19, said the best thing about St. Gabriel School was the sense of community.

“All the best friends I have today are the friends I made here,” she said.

The teachers, she added, were like family.

“I came to say goodbye,” Ende said.