Because it no longer serves the Japanese community, the Maryknoll Grade School will ring its final bell at the end of this academic year despite protests from some parents, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles has announced.
The elementary school, which shares property with St. Francis Xavier Church, better known as Maryknoll Church, will reopen next fall as a church-run Japanese Catholic Center, possibly the first of its kind in the country.
"It's always difficult when you have to choose to end one apostolate (mission) in order to begin another. But we wanted to support the aspirations of the Japanese Catholic community," said Father Gregory Coiro of the archdiocese, which approved the closure.
The school, founded by Maryknoll Church parishioners in 1921, suffered declining enrollment as many Japanese deserted Little Tokyo for the suburbs over the last 15 years. Only three families who worship at the Maryknoll chapel still enroll their children in the school on South Hewitt Street.
Once a focus of the Japanese Catholic community, where students made lifelong friends and sometimes met future spouses, Maryknoll has become a commuter school with a more diverse ethnic makeup. Many parents who now enroll their children there work Downtown. The archdiocese has urged these parents to transfer their children to Catholic schools closer to home next year.
Claudia Dunn-Carapia and her husband, both city employees, commute Downtown together from Tujunga. They drop their kindergarten-age youngster off at Maryknoll and leave their 3-year-old at a nearby day-care center.
Dunn-Carapia cannot enroll her daughter in her community's Catholic school because she would not be able to meet the 6 p.m. deadline to pick her up from after-school day care, she said.
"I feel we have been duped. We found a good school, conveniently located, ethnically diverse--and now without warning, it's closing," Dunn-Carapia said.
Although the archdiocese has said its decision is final, Dunn-Carapia is leading an effort on behalf of about 65 parents to keep the school open.
They have marched outside the Maryknoll parish during Sunday service, and planned to bring their grievances to Cardinal Roger M. Mahony's doorstep Thursday by marching outside the archdiocese's West 9th Street offices.
The original purpose of the church and the school was to serve the needs of the Japanese Catholic community. Opening the center keeps that spirit alive, said Joji Taketa, 36, who attended the Maryknoll school in the 1960s and is now parish council president.
"The church and the school were going their separate ways, but still sharing the same facility," Taketa said.
While most Maryknoll parishioners no longer send their children to the school, they have remained faithful to the church. Its scattered flock of about 200 return each Sunday for services in Japanese. On Christmas, the pews are overflowing.
"I think at some point all the Japanese Catholics in the Los Angeles area must have had some contact with the Maryknoll parish," said Taketa, who added that the church has a mailing list of about 1,000.
Inside the church, parishioners blend their traditional customs with the Catholic faith. For example, the church recently observed the Keiro-No-Hi, the celebration of the elderly.
Taketa says the Japanese Catholic Center will play a similar role.
"It will allow us to experience the Catholic faith in a Japanese setting," he said.
Touted as the first of its kind in the continental United States, tentative plans for the center, which will occupy the Maryknoll school building, include a tatami room for prayer and meditation as well as classes for seniors, Bible study, language labs, a social service hot line, hymn practice and karaoke.