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A century of thriving gives way to struggles for St. Peter Claver Catholic School.

Two white nuns opened St. Peter Claver Catholic School in 1894 amid a torrent of racial tension from people who thought they had no business educating black youth.

Arsonists burned the school. The nuns rebuilt, and for more than 100 years, St. Peter Claver thrived.

But years of declining enrollment and the loss of major funding have combined to create what could become the school's epilogue.

St. Peter Claver, which touts itself as the oldest continuously running African-American school in Florida, may close at the end of the semester.

"If we don't have the money, we run the risk of not having scholarships for the kids," said Sister Maria Babatunde, the school's principal. "That goes into not having enough money to pay our bills and salaries and all that. That might lead to closing, which I'm trying not to do."

The school, which has depended heavily on subsidies from the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg, is on its own for the first time this year. Last spring, diocese officials made the decision to stop funding Catholic grade schools in the diocese in favor of tuition assistance programs.

Under the new guidelines, Catholic students throughout the five-county diocese can apply for and receive scholarships to attend the school of their choice. Diocese officials said the new method of disbursement is a more equitable way of providing funds to all needy Catholic families.

St. Peter Claver received $250,000 of the $1-million given to grade schools last year, diocese spokesman Frank Murphy said.

The school's leaders said they were unaware of the new focus on tuition-assistance programs. But Murphy said the school had applied for and received some funds, albeit a small amount because most of St. Peter Claver's students are not Catholic.

Determined to continue operations, the school, its church and alumni are organizing a massive fundraising effort. Parishioners at St. Peter Claver Catholic Church have made pledges. Alumni have been asked to adopt students and pay their tuition. And on Oct. 24, the school plans to hold a fundraising ball at Higgins Hall.

So far, the fundraising efforts have brought in about $55,000, church officials said. It costs $750,000 to operate the school. Administrators need at least $250,000 to cover this year's budget shortfall, Babatunde said.

Babatunde also has started canvassing the community in an effort to round up potential students for the school.

Church leaders say they plan to fight to keep the school afloat.

"We survived the first storms, and we are likely to survive this one, too," said the Rev. Hugh Chikawe, pastor of St. Peter Claver Catholic Church, which donates $2,000 a month to the school to help with expenses.

Despite its budget shortfall, St. Peter Claver opened its doors to 93 students in August. Most are not Catholic and 99 percent receive scholarships to assist with the $4,000 annual tuition, Babatunde said.

Because the school lacks funding, there are no afterschool programs or sports activities.

St. Peter Claver's dire financial situation is a far cry from its glory days when the campus teemed with students and the community flooded its doors to hear artists such as Cab Calloway perform in its auditorium, a venue that was open to blacks during segregation.

Rigoberto Garcia, who finished St. Peter Claver in 1947, remembers those days well.

"St. Peter Claver, to me, was like going to Jesuit or Tampa Catholic," said Garcia, 78. "When we left there and went to public school, we were far ahead of all the students in public schools. They gave us a foundation to succeed in life."

Garcia, who also is a member of St. Peter Claver Catholic Church, became a high school principal. His classmates run the gamut of professions from doctors to jurists.

Dr. Paul L. Sheehy Jr., a podiatrist, is among the school's alumni who are working to insure it does not close.

"It's a great institution," Sheehy said. "It's produced - and I hope will continue to produce - great leaders of tomorrow. We're going to do all we can to keep it open."

Pauline Francis-Phillips, a Catholic parent, counts on the school to stay open for her 12-year-old daughter, KeTaira.

"It's like a mini-family," said Phillips, who lives in Valrico. "It would be really devastating to see a school that rich in history be lost. I hope and pray every day that we can save it."

Sherri Day can be reached at or (813) 226-3405.

Fast facts

How you can help

For information about the Higgins Ball or to make donations to the St. Peter Claver, contact Sister Maria Babatunde at (813) 224-0865.