Mom rallying community to save Naugatuck Catholic school

NAUGATUCK, Conn. (WTNH) — Call it mom power.

What Jennifer Wilson Wilmot started is catching a lot of people’s attention in Naugatuck, including Mayor Pete Hess.

“She’s gritty, resiliant, and she fights to the death and she’s doing a great job,” the mayor said.

Here’s what she did. Jennifer and many other parents in Naugatuck are worried that the borough’s last Catholic school may be on the endangered list because of debt and enrollment issues. So, Jennifer took to social media to send a powerful message to the Archdiocese of Hartford to keep the school open. She started an online petition and much to her surprise, that petition ballooned to 2,700 (and counting) signatures of support to keep the St. Francis-St. Hedwig School open.

“I’m shocked,” Jennifer said. “I really thought I’d only get 75 maybe 80 signatures and they’d all be from my family.”

Other people in Naugatuck are not shocked — including parents who have children at the school.

“We have a very, very active and vibrant community that is engaged in the preservation of this very important school,” said Chester Cornacchia.

“It’s extremely important,” Jennifer said. “I want my kids to grow up with a faith-based Catholic education.”

Jennifer has 5 children who go to St. Francis-St. Hedwig and another who already graduated from the K-8 school. There are currently 154 students enrolled there. For many families, having their kids attain a solid, Catholic education is very important in Naugatuck and has been for a very long time.

“This past year we celebrated the 125th anniversary of the church and the 150th anniversary of the parish,” said Mayor Hess. “They’ve been here from the beginning. They’re an integral part of our community and they must stay.”

Many Naugatuck residents who went there as children now hold prominent jobs in the community.

The debt the school is facing is reportedly at around $300,000. But, some dispute that figure. Mayor Hess met with representatives from the Archdiocese last week to try to work on a solution.

Here’s what he told them: “We can certainly find a way to buy some time, to make things work and to find a way to increase the number of students that go to St. Francis,” he said.

Here’s a statement the Archdiocese gave to News8:

“A meeting with local officials took place on Friday, January 26 and there will be further discussion with town officials and others over the next few weeks to explore ways to deal with the significant budget deficit at St. Francis-St. Hedwig School and it’s future.”

Town officials say something divine has happened since Jennifer’s online petition spread like wildfire online. They say there’s been an increase in families from other nearby cities — like Waterbury — seeking information about possibly enrolling their children at St. Francis-St. Hedwig. Waterbury has just had to merge some Catholic schools and churches because of enrollment numbers there. The mayor made sure to point that out to the Archdiocese.

“I’m telling them work with us,” he said. “Let us try to find a way to help you to make it work…..We can certainly find a way to buy some time, to make things work and to find a way to increase the number of students that go to St. Francis.”

Jennifer says this is just round one of her fight. Next, she’ll try to mobilize others to help further spread the word that St. Francis-St.Hedwig is looking for more families to experience what the school community has given to her children.

“The teachers are wonderful,” she said. “They volunteer their time before and after school — they’re fantastic. It’s like a second family for all of us.”

She hopes families of the future will be able to experience that, too.

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