Florida church excited to reopen Catholic school after 14-year hiatus


This replica statute of Our Lady of Fatima stands in the courtyard of St. Malachy Catholic School in Tamarac, Florida. Even after the school closed in 2009, the two charter schools that leased the campus never removed it. As the school reopens as a parish school in August, the statue has inspired those working to prepare the school for reopening. Photo courtesy of the Archdiocese of Miami

Since it closed in 2009, a victim of the Great Recession that wrecked family finances across the United States, the campus on the grounds of St. Malachy Catholic Church in Tamarac, Florida, has housed secular charter schools.

However, despite the focus those learning institutions placed solely on academics, one sacred element remained: the statue of the Virgin Mary. She stands in a courtyard atop a stone pedestal, in front of three children who kneel in reverence. The statue is a replica of Our Lady of Fatima, which, according to the Catholic church, the Virgin Mary appeared six times to three Portuguese shepherd children starting in 1917 and shared visions and messages. The church declared the visions of Fatima as “worthy of belief” in 1930.

As St. Malachy Catholic Church prepares to reopen its parish school after a 14-year hiatus, the statue is a powerful symbol of what a community’s faith and teamwork can accomplish.

“They never removed the statue of Our Lady,” said Zoraida Perez, the school’s registrar and first employee hired for the reopening. She said the fact that the statue remained feels like a miracle to her. “I did work in another parish where a charter school took over, and the first thing they did was remove all the images.”

Perez, who was not working for St. Malachy in 2008 but who lived in the area, recalled the strong emotions people felt when the economy forced the school, along with seven other area Catholic schools, to close due to low enrollment.

“Many of those families were so sad, and they had to decide between providing a home and food for their children or a private, parochial education,” said Perez, whose three children attended Catholic schools. Many of them had to make the decision to school and go to public school.”

Those who were able to continue in Catholic schools were offered seats at other area schools.

The transition to new schools was tough for some families, who missed the sense of community that a smaller school like St. Malachy, which first opened in 1984, provided. The school and the church are named for St. Malachy, an Irish Saint who lived during the 1100s.

The church leased the campus to a charter school, which closed in 2018. Another followed but closed in 2021 amid the coronavirus pandemic.

When leaders announced in March that the parish would reopen the school, a woman whose two children had to transfer to another Catholic school when St. Malachy closed showed up immediately with donations of backpacks and school supplies.

“She said her kids felt lonely because they were the new people at the school,” Perez said. “She said what they had at Saint Malachy was a family.”

Parish and school leaders said they based the decision to reopen on a population boom that included many young families moving to the area. Tamarac boasted a population of nearly 72,000 in 2020, according to the latest U.S. Census figures. That’s an increase of more than 10,000 from 2010, when the census showed a population of 60,427.

“The decision to reopen St. Malachy followed a feasibility study in which we looked at local demographic trends, educational options and other factors. Through this study, we determined that a viable Catholic school could reopen at St. Malachy without operating to the detriment of nearby Catholic schools,” said Jim Rigg, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Miami.

Rigg, who as superintendent oversees 63 Catholic schools, doesn’t need statistics to show him what he has observed.

“People are moving here from all over the world, from the United States and Latin America and the Caribbean,” Rigg said. “We’re in growth mode.”

Figures from the 20222-23 school year confirm Rigg’s statement.

Total enrollment came in at 33,577, the highest in more than five years.

In Key West, the Basilica School of St. Mary Star of the Sea is expanding to offer high school in August. It will be the first time since 1986, when Mary Immaculate High School closed, that the county has had a Catholic high school. Also, Cristo Rey Miami High School, an independent Catholic school, opened in 2022.

Across the Sunshine State, Catholic school enrollment rose 6.3 percent in 2021-22, the biggest jump of any of the 10 states with the biggest Catholic enrollments and outpacing the 3.8 percent hike nationally, according to state-by-state figures from the National Catholic Educational Association.

Leaders attribute Florida’s trend-defying figures over the past several years to its robust education choice laws, which offer families access to scholarships to attend private schools.

“Catholic schools in states that have school-choice programs…had greater enrollment stability over the past two years than Catholic schools in states with no private-school choice,” according to a study by the Manhattan Institute. “That is, Catholic schools in states with multiple choice programs (two or more) lost far fewer students in the first year of the pandemic (–4.9%) than states with no private-school-choice programs (–7.6%), but both the robust choice and the nonchoice states rebounded in 2021–22 by the same percentage (+4%).

The six states with education savings accounts, which give families the ability to use funds to customize their students’ education, also saw enrollment increases that were twice as large as states that had no ESAs. This year, the Florida Legislature expanded education choice by granting automatic eligibility to all students regardless of income.

Even so, Archdiocese of Miami leaders are starting small at St. Malachy, with seats only for 4-year-old kindergarten and voluntary pre-kindergarten students as well as kindergarten. They expect to have about 45 students the first year. The next year, they plan to begin adding other grades, eventually capping out at eighth grade. (To learn about registration and careers, go here.)


Jim Rigg, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Miami, answers questions and hands out information about the soon-to-reopen St. Malachy School after church services at St. Malachy Church. Photo by Linda Reeves of Archdiocese of Miami

Perez said the community response has been overwhelming since word got out about the reopening plans. The Knights of Columbus St. Malachy Council 13355 have been doing handywork to help get the school ready to open in August. Nearby St. Bonaventure School reached out with guidance and local companies have donated and installed technology as well as offered free uniforms in the school’s blue and gold colors for incoming students.

In the areas of the school that will be occupied this fall, community members have installed new flooring, provided new furniture, moved the administrative offices to the front of the building and built a new canopy for the playground to provide shade. A parliament of owls found living in one part of the building provided inspiration for the school mascot: the owl.

“It takes a village to raise a child,” Perez said, quoting the African proverb. “This is where you find it.”


Avatar photo

BY Lisa Buie

Lisa Buie is senior reporter for NextSteps. The daughter of a public school superintendent, she spent more than a dozen years as a reporter and bureau chief at the Tampa Bay Times before joining Shriners Hospitals for Children — Tampa, where she served for nearly five years as marketing and communications manager. She lives with her husband and their teenage son, who has benefited from education choice.