PITTSFIELD, MASS. >> Gary Bianchi's junior year at St. Joseph Central High School was a heart-wrenching one. His father, Al Bianchi Sr. was dying, but what got the son through the tough time was the close-knit feeling faculty and students had on the Maplewood Avenue campus.
"Coaches would take me home for dinner. Teachers would take me home for dinner. You don't get that in a public school," said the Class of '81 alum.
Bianchi's children were also Crusaders, and he was the football team's head coach for 20 years, until 2013.
"It was a family environment, being a St. Joe parent and St. Joe coach was special," he said.
Bianchi spoke on Thursday evening reminiscing about his student, coaching and parenting days at the latest — and last — Catholic school to close in Pittsfield. St. Mark Middle School shuttered in June of 2015, with Sacred Heart Elementary School closing in 2006.
As parents and faculty gathered at the school Thursday evening to get the news first hand, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield announced the last parochial high school in the Berkshires would padlock its doors when the current academic year ends in June. The county's remaining Catholic schools are all pre-kindergarten through eighth grade: St. Stanislaus Kostka in Adams, St. Agnes Academy in Dalton and St. Mary's in Lee.
Founded in 1897 as St. Joseph Academy by the Sisters of St. Joseph, the faith-based high school's first building was on North Pearl Street, replaced by the current building completed and dedicated in October of 1942 at a cost of $400,000,according to The Eagles archives.
Thursday's announcement came in a series of meetings with board members, faculty, staff and parents, led by Franciscan Sister of St. Joseph M. Andrea Ciszewski, Springfield diocesan superintendent of Catholic schools.
With a current enrollment of 68 students — down from around 300 in 2006 which included an 8th grade — and needing $4.5 million in diocesan funding to stay afloat the past five years, diocesan education officials couldn't justify keeping St. Joseph open.
"As trends in the church and society evolved throughout the years, so have the St. Joseph Central High School realities of a steadily increasing cost of education, a declining school enrollment, greater financial assistance needs, the overwhelming price of renovations and major repairs of an aging facility, and increased annual operational costs," she said.
Initially, over the summer, school officials were optimistic that they would have their first increase in enrollment. But, at the last minute, an expected enrollment of international students fell through, leaving the Catholic secondary school with just the 68 students and a significant operational deficit.
The diocese, has pledged to provide continuing financial assistance to those families who wish to continue to send their children to other Catholic high schools.
"It was with great sadness that this decision had to be made, but not before many years of valiant efforts by the very dedicated board, faculty and staff of St. Joseph's," said the Most Rev. Mitchell T. Rozanski, bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield. "We had hoped to turn around the enrollment decline and financial deficit, but despite the very best and exemplary efforts of so many, the task proved unattainable. My thoughts and prayers go out to all who grieve the end of this great school."
Sad but not surprised was the reaction of several St. Joseph alum contacted by The Eagle Thursday evening.
Berkshire state Sen. Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, Class of '99 feels like he's lost part of his childhood — again. The Pittsfield native in recent years has seen Sacred Heart and the former Notre Dame school also cease to exist. Downing still cherishes his Catholic education, especially at St. Joseph.
"The ethics and value that St. Joe has makes it a special place," he said.
While Tom Goggins, Class of '77, understands the economic condition his alma mater is facing, St. Joseph closing is a loss for the city as well as the St. Joseph's Church parish community.
"Through the years, St. Joe's had a strong academic history and was strong in sports, that's why many [students] went there," he said.
The father of three St. Joseph graduates, two daughters and a son, also found students had a great respect for all on campus, especially each other.
"When I was in school and even when my kids were there, you didn't lock your lockers," he said. "Nothing ever got stolen."
The fate of the 74-year old school building, owned by the parish, is unknown as church officials were unavailable for comment.
Contact Dick Lindsay at 413-496-6233.