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 St. Luke Lutheran Church Pastor Russell Johnson sits in his church office. In the same building, the K-8 school that had been open since 1957 closed prior to this school year.

St. Luke Lutheran Church Pastor Russell Johnson sits in his church office. In the same building, the K-8 school that had been open since 1957 closed prior to this school year.

Photo by Nick Mordowanec

St. Luke Lutheran School closes after 62 years

By: Nick Mordowanec | Fraser - Clinton Township Chronicle | Published September 13, 2019


CLINTON TOWNSHIP — For the first time since 1957, classrooms are vacant at St. Luke Lutheran School.

On July 7, due to a dwindling student population and societal demographic shifts, the Clinton Township-based school decided to close its doors for good. The decision was made prior to the current school year so that the three multi-grade teachers could find work elsewhere.

The decision provided parents and guardians of the approximately 30 students between kindergarten and eighth grade with the opportunity to make sure their kids continue to receive an education. There would have been just eight students in grades five through eight combined if the school had remained open.

About seven or eight students transferred to St. Peter’s Lutheran School in Eastpointe, while the remaining 20 or so students either went to public schools or are being home-schooled.

“The demographics have just changed so drastically in the last 20 years,” said St. Luke Pastor Russell Johnson, who came to the church five years ago.

Attendance by school-aged children has declined, while about 90% of the church’s congregation of about 650 members is 60 years and older. Young multi-children families are less common, while home schooling has become more prevalent.

The move comes after the congregation funded the school for its last five years, in what was a last-ditch effort to absorb tuition rates that normally average at about $3,000 per year.

Johnson said that during the peak of both the school and the congregation in the 1980s, when there were about 200 students and 1,900 churchgoers, respectively, it was a community endeavor. Many people lived within three-quarters of a mile of the location, he noted.

“When the decision was made to close the school, it came rather quickly,” he said. “What became clear end of May, first of June, (is that) we might have a problem making payroll sometime next school year.”

A “steady decline” throughout the 1990s and 2000s cemented a sad reality for the school.

“I think the final death knell here was the Great Recession,” Johnson said. “Families that had stayed, a lot of the families that were in their 30s and 40s, left because they had to for work. That’s when I think we lost those 25- to 45-year-olds.”

Jake Gondek, 25, of St. Clair Shores, attended St. Luke’s from 1997 to 2008. Back then, there were seven girls and five boys in his class.

Still a churchgoer at the location with his fiancé, he sees three old close friends about twice per week. He called the experience truly valuable, saying “it really put into perspective how to view the world from a Christian standpoint.”

“I never forgot what I was taught, the lessons I learned, and the role models I had at the school and church,” Gondek said.

For him, going to public school post-St. Luke’s was an “awakening.” When he attended the University of Michigan, things got bigger and bigger. Now reality sets in.

“Finding out that St. Luke was closing, sadly it made sense,” he said. “I understood it. But at the same time, it does bring in a wave of nostalgia of how I came to be.”

Moving forward, Johnson said he and others are weighing options as to how the former school will be utilized.

Looking at the facilities and land, as well as the traditional family size now as opposed to decades ago, he has entertained the idea of doing something associated with senior care — be it an activity center or an assisted- iving facility. Nothing is set in stone.

“The churches that are growing or staying stable are in areas that are still growing — residential areas they’re still building and have room to grow,” the pastor said. “Areas like this that have been totally built up for the last 40 years, they’re pretty stagnant.”

He and others in the St. Luke community continue to look above for guidance.

“We know that the Lord is in control; this is his church,” Johnson said. “We’re called not to worry about those things. Yes, you’d like to see more people, of course. And you want to invite people to come and hope more people come. But it’s not for us to worry about.

“What the church is, is to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s what we are supposed to do: spread his word. So as long as we’re faithful to that, God will take care of if there’s supposed to be more people here or less.”