LEFT: A Trenton Catholic Academy Lower School student gives the thumbs-up sign during his in-person lesson. Face coverings, social distancing and other health safety measures have been a must in all Catholic school classrooms since fall 2020. Courtesy photo

RIGHT: Sister Dorothy Payne speaks to the Trenton Catholic Academy graduating Class of 2017 following the Baccalaureate Mass. President of TCA from its opening in 2005 until her death in February 2019, Sister Dorothy “made Trenton Catholic Academy a reality.” Joe Moore photo
LEFT: A Trenton Catholic Academy Lower School student gives the thumbs-up sign during his in-person lesson. Face coverings, social distancing and other health safety measures have been a must in all Catholic school classrooms since fall 2020. Courtesy photo RIGHT: Sister Dorothy Payne speaks to the Trenton Catholic Academy graduating Class of 2017 following the Baccalaureate Mass. President of TCA from its opening in 2005 until her death in February 2019, Sister Dorothy “made Trenton Catholic Academy a reality.” Joe Moore photo

Since the January announcement that Trenton Catholic Academy in Hamilton would close this June, those tasked with preparing for the new reality have been unabashed in their feelings for the school community.

“Trenton Catholic Academy has changed lives, mine included,” said president Michael Knowles. “It has been a beacon of light in the darkness. It has served the community well.”

“TCA is more than a school for our students, it is family,” said Anne Reap, lower school director. “It’s not about the building – it’s about the people who had a dream long ago and those who believed in it. It is about those who still have that same dream decades later. May we be better as a community because we believed.”

Trenton Catholic Academy’s Upper and Lower Schools were formed in 2005 through the restructuring of Holy Cross School, Holy Angels School, Immaculate Conception School, St. Anthony School and McCorristin Catholic High School. In its more than 15-year history, the Academy has educated tens of thousands of students in grades pre-K3 through 12th grade, and graduated more than a thousand seniors, most under the loving guidance of the founding president, Sister of St. Joseph Dorothy Payne. 

Fiercely loyal to TCA students, whom she described as “Good kids that live good lives that make the world a better place,” Sister Dorothy helped the school earn a strong reputation in the areas of academics, athletics, community involvement and spiritual development.  Sister Dorothy died in 2019.

Sister of St. Joseph Phyllis Tracy, human resources, attested that “Sister Dorothy dedicated her life to providing a quality education in a Catholic setting for the children of families sharing the same dream. She demonstrated care and concern for her students, faculty and staff.”

Sister Dorothy and the team she had assembled worked tirelessly in delivering a Catholic education to students of diverse ethnic, racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, aided significantly through diocesan subsidy and a specially-established fund, as well as a strong network of benefactors, community partners and supporters of its mission. But years of cumulative deficits and the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic took their toll, leaving the school dependent on $2 million in financial support annually for the past 12 years.  The inevitable decision was reached to close the school.

Putting God, Others First

Leading his community through this difficult time, Knowles is grateful for all those who have played an integral part in what TCA had become.  Among those he credits is Reap, calling her “the best of the best when it comes to leadership in Catholic education. Year after year, she challenges everyone – herself included – to be better than the year before.”

Reap would be the first to point out that the school’s Catholic faith and rich traditions of the Church have always been at the heart of TCA.

“We have evangelized and taught as Jesus did,” she explained. “Our faculty and staff are first and foremost Catholic school teachers in all that they do and say. It is who they are – they walk the talk.”

Rose O’Connor, marketing director, said TCA has worked over the years to develop the spirituality of the students it serves by providing opportunities for both personal and communal prayer, such as daily prayer sprinkled throughout the school day, and a chance to receive Holy Communion each morning at a Communion Service before school.

“All liturgical traditions are shared,” Reap explained, “whether Stations of the Cross, monthly prayer services by class or by unit, or service learning experiences.”

The atmosphere of shared faith and a re-engagement with the parishes in Trenton have led to a growing number of Catholic students over the years to the current 68.7 percent.  “Because we live our faith, it’s natural for our (non-Catholic) students to want to become part of the Catholic faith,” Reap acknowledged.

“Our students are active members of their parish communities and participate in the sacramental life of the Church,” O’Connor pointed out. Participation in diocesan spiritual programs such as the annual pilgrimage in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and the Catholic Athletes for Christ program has offered ample opportunities for students to grow in their faith.

Part of the spiritual mission is a firm commitment to service.

“While Trenton Catholic Academy serves many low-income families, service is the middle name of our student body,” said Sister Phyllis. “Our students collect food and donations for needy families and they provide many service hours to local organizations supporting those in need.”

The school community has adopted many special programs to support charitable organizations and causes, such as an annual Pajama Day, which allowed students to wear pajamas to school for a donation.  The proceeds supported Christine’s Hope for Kids in honor of college student Christine Gianacaci who died in an earthquake while on a mission trip to Haiti in 2010.

Other activities included outreach to local senior facility residents and participation in annual service days run by the Diocese.

Some former students, O’Connor noted, have taken service into their personal missions beyond high school. “Several of our alumni have formed their own nonprofit service organizations and have returned to TCA to share their experiences and stress the importance of service to others.”

Academic, Athletic Accolades

Garnering millions of dollars in college scholarships annually, graduates have earned advanced degrees, entered law enforcement, started businesses, achieved executive status as professionals and become community activists, noted Charles Kroekel, Upper School director.

“TCA graduates go out into the world prepared to make it a better place,” he emphasized.

The diversity of students enrolled in TCA means that “some are academic standouts, some are athletic all-stars, some are interested in the arts or sciences, and all are open to discovering who they really are or can be,” Reap reflected. “At TCA we celebrate the good in all of our students. Our children come to us with varied talents, and our goal is to provide opportunities for growth to further enhance their God-given gifts.”


Athletes – with the team name “Iron Mikes” – have competed in scores of tournaments and championships across the county, state and conference in all sports. Carrying their athletic prowess into college, countless student athletes have earned Division I athletic scholarships. One former TCA graduate became a Harlem Globetrotter, and three have entered the NBA.

“No matter where they go, they bring the values that come from their family and TCA and reflect the good from both,” Knowles exclaimed.

The Way Forward

As plans for students and faculty take place in the coming months, Knowles’ prayer for students “is that they can attend a school that will meet their individual needs and help them to continue their pathway to become better versions of themselves.”

Reap hopes that “they continue their education in a local Catholic school where they can grow in their relationship with Jesus and the Church.”

“We were tasked with consolidating five Trenton schools, each with their own identity, rich history and charisms, and create an entirely new school community,” O’Connor said. “I am proud of the work we have done and the students that we have served.”

Knowles summed up the TCA experience with Franciscan inspiration: “To paraphrase St. Francis, TCA has done what was ours to do, it is for Christ to show others what is theirs.”