Parents blame priest after San Francisco's Star of the Sea School suspends class indefinitely

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Star of the Sea is a 110-year-old San Francisco institution, a Catholic church and school in the Richmond District.

This week, The Archdiocese of San Francisco and Star of the Sea Pastor, Father Joseph Illo, announced that K-8 classes will be suspended at the end of the school year in June. The preschool will remain open.

"There is such a deep sadness right now that we are all feeling," said Meghan Parent, who has four kids who have all gone to Star of the Sea. Last year, Parent pulled her two youngest out of 4th grade. "I saw what was coming."

Parents says the man who has been in charge of the school is to blame.

"It was a community so full of love and so full of goodness, that I think when Father Illo came, the record skipped and everyone was like whoa, what happened? The party's over. He just kind of brought in a negativity."

The Archdiocese of San Francisco says the closure is because of declining enrollment, which they say is down across the board at San Francisco Catholic schools, but is especially low at Star of the Sea.

In the 2013/2014 school year, 280 students were enrolled at Star of the Sea.

In the 2017/2018 school year, 256 students were enrolled.

At the beginning of this school year, only 168 students were enrolled, and more have been dropping out mid-year.

"People are leaving because of the safety of our children," said Karin Woods, who pulled her two sons out of Star at Thanksgiving. She blames ongoing disagreements, with Father Illo, about education and school culture. "Father Illo distributed pamphlets to a lot of kids throughout the school, from second grade all the way up to eighth grade, and those pamphlets were talking about things like vasectomy, sodomy, masturbation and abortion."

Star of the Sea parents sent ABC7 more than a dozen letters, all complaints about Father Illo, that parents have written and sent to leadership at the San Francisco Archdiocese over the past four years.

"Father Illo just erupted," exclaimed Jim Tolley, who says he witnessed Father Illo yell at fellow Star parents at school meeting in March. "He yelled at her husband and said, you tell your wife to apologize to me, which is a deeply hostile and misogynistic statement."

Tolley pulled his 7th grade daughter out of school last week.

ABC7 spoke to several faculty members off camera on Thursday, who all said they were very upset about the school closure, but that they were instructed not to do interviews.

The San Francisco Archdiocese also declined to give a an interview or a statement in response to parents concerns about Father Illo. But, they did share two letters that Father Illo sent to parents and teachers this week. In the them, Father Illo acknowledged that "this past year has been particularly difficult for everyone involved in our school." He goes on to say that he's "grateful to our faculty and staff, and many parents, for working so hard to provide a quality Catholic education for our children during this time of transition."

A spokesman for the Archdiocese told ABC7, that they definitely intend to reopen Star of the Sea School in the future.

See the full letters sent to parents and staff below:

Communication to Star of the Sea School PARENTS

April 4, 2019

Dear Parents,

This past year has been particularly difficult for everyone involved in our school. I am most grateful to our faculty and staff, and many parents, who have worked so hard provide a quality Catholic education for your children during this time of transition. Many have worked hard to build bridges between the parish and the school as well as develop an Integrated Classical Program, and none of that effort is wasted. We now see, however, that it is wiser to take additional time to properly study, design, market and fund the Integrated Classical Program at Star of the Sea. We have done everything possible to maintain classes uninterrupted during this time of transition, but due to a projected low enrollment for the upcoming school year, we regret that we must suspend Kindergarten through Eighth Grade classes for next year. The school will continue its preschool classes uninterrupted and will build greater collaboration between our fully-enrolled preschool and our elementary school.

This has been a difficult and uncertain period for many parents, some of whom have strongly expressed their concerns and reluctance to accept this development. There has also been a good deal of positive interest in moving forward with this new model. I am looking forward to working with people who are eager to develop this kind of school in San Francisco. I also continue to be grateful to the Department of Catholic Schools for their expertise and support in this effort.

The Department of Catholic Schools will be communicating with the schools of the Archdiocese to assure placement of your children in other Catholic schools if you desire that, as well as assuring that our beloved faculty can secure teaching positions within our school system if they so desire. I much regret the upset this suspension of classes will cause families, and had hoped to avoid it. Knowing that God will provide for us all, I wish you and your children the best education the Catholic Church can provide.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Fr. Joseph Illo


Communication to Star of the Sea School FACULTY

Dear Teachers and Staff,

This past year has been particularly difficult for everyone involved in our school. I am most grateful to you, our faculty and staff, for working so hard to provide a quality Catholic education for our children during this time of transition. I can scarcely imagine the difficulty in maintaining a stable classroom environment in the confusion that ensued this year, and especially as you saw your students leaving throughout the school year.

Many have worked hard to build bridges between the parish and the school as well as develop an Integrated Classical Program, and none of that effort is wasted. We now see, however, that it is wiser to take time to properly study, design, market and fund an Integrated Classical Program at Star of the Sea. We have done everything possible to maintain classes uninterrupted during this time of transition, but due to a projected low enrollment for the upcoming school year, we regret that we must suspend Kindergarten through Eighth Grade classes for next year. The school will continue its preschool classes uninterrupted and will build greater collaboration between our fully-enrolled preschool and our elementary school for the future.

While some have strongly expressed their concerns and reluctance to integrating with the parish and developing an Integrated Classical Program, others are eager to develop this kind of school in San Francisco. I am looking forward to working with this positive energy in the year to come.

The Department of Catholic Schools will be communicating with the schools of the Archdiocese to assure placement of our children in other Catholic schools if they so desire, as well as assuring that you, our beloved faculty, can secure teaching positions within our school system if you so desire. The DCS is working with Archdiocesan Human Resources to provide the proper employment benefits to all our employees.

I much regret the upset this suspension of classes will cause everyone, and had hoped to avoid it. Knowing that God will provide for us all, I wish you and your families all the best.

Sincerely yours in Christ,
Fr. Joseph Illo
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