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Catholic school in Hernando stunned by nun's dismissal

BROOKSVILLE -- Barbara Williams did not want to believe the news in the letter that arrived at her Spring Hill home last Friday.

Sister Eileen Marie Woodbury, principal at Notre Dame Catholic School in Spring Hill for nearly a decade, would finish out this school year but would not be return in the fall.

"We were all in shock," Williams, whose son attends the pre-K-8 school, said of the school community's reaction. "There was never any hint there was any trouble, any turbulence, or that Sister Eileen wasn't getting the job done."

Notre Dame needs more energy and support to boost sagging enrollment, according to the letter by Father Richard Jankowski, who oversees the school for the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg.

"This is a challenging time we live in and it requires great energy to continue to try strategies for retaining and recruiting students," Jankowski wrote. "It requires actions that are not always viewed as pleasant or popular but they are necessary."

Jankowski has decided not to renew Woodbury's contract, the letter said.

"In order to meet the challenges we face and take Notre Dame to the next level for a successful future, we will begin the process of selecting new leadership for the school," he wrote.

Neither Jankowski nor Woodbury returned messages Wednesday.

Jankowski, who also is pastor at St, Frances Cabrini Catholic Church in Spring Hill, makes decisions about school leadership, said Frank Murphy, director of communications for the St. Petersburg diocese.

"This is a decision after a lot of consideration by Father Jankowski," Murphy said. "He shared that with the bishop (the Most Rev. Robert Lynch) and the vicar general but that's really the limit of the (diocese's) involvement."

More than 100 people showed up to school's gym Monday night to meet with Jankowski. Most were angry, some shed tears, and all wanted an explanation, parents said.

"We all left there extremely disappointed because none of our questions were answered," said Cindy Guarino.

Jankowski said the decision was final, parents said. He said he would share big plans in the coming weeks — and that Woodbury did not fit into those plans.

In the letter, Jankowski wrote that the consulted with the Franciscan Order of St. Elizabeth, of which Woodbury and two other nuns at the school who serve as teachers are a part.

He also wrote that he consulted with the School Advisory Board. But advisory board members were present at the meeting Monday and seemed to have just as many questions, Guarino said.

Some parents are threatening to pull their children from the school. Some are writing letters to the bishop.

"I do think it was handled very poorly," said Clara Ward, who has put two children through Notre Dame and now has a first-grader there.

An ad for the principal position has been posted on the diocese Web site. Among the required qualifications, a successful candidate would be "supportive of marketing and recruitment efforts in conjunction with the School Advisory Board for the goal of enhancing enrollment."

Woodbury, who entered religious life at the age of 16, is 58 years old and had been an educator for more than three decades when she moved from New Jersey to take over at Notre Dame in 2001, according to a story that appeared in the Times that year. She was the first nun to run the school since 1989.

"There might not be what you say is a Spring Hill (town) center," Woodbury said at the time. "But there is a sense that people are committed to each other."

Woodbury vowed to improve technology at the school founded in 1985 and kept that promise by bringing Internet capabilities to the classrooms, parents said.

But many private schools are reporting declining enrollments in this poor economy and some parents can no longer afford tuition. Enrollment at Notre Dame was about 320 students in 2001 and has dropped to about 175 students.

Woodbury's impending departure is one more bit of unsettling news for a community touched by tragedy including the deaths of two former students and others close to the school. One of the teachers is the sister of Capt. Scott Bierwiler of the Hernando Sheriff's Office, who was killed in a car accident last year.

Now the school is dealing with the loss of Dr. Robert Blackburn and his wife, Sarah, in January, the victims of a murder-suicide. Their son attends the school.

Notre Dame has handled such trauma due in large part to Woodbury and the two other nuns who are expected to leave with her, parents said.

Donna Coumoulos of Spring Hill has a daughter who started at Notre Dame 13 years ago and has since graduated and a son in fifth-grade.

"Sister Eileen took that school and she's made it just a wonderful place to be," Coumoulos said. "We've had some tragedies, and we stuck together as a family. It's almost like they're breaking up the family."

Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

Catholic school in Hernando stunned by nun's dismissal 03/17/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 17, 2010 11:17pm]

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