Elk Island Catholic Schools (EICS) apologized on Facebook this weekend after a Fort Saskatchewan man made an unsettling discovery.
Local dad Jordan Carnell was with his daughter at St. John Paul II Catholic high school on Thursday when curiosity led him to take a look inside a parking lot dumpster. What he saw left him stunned -- decades’ worth of framed class graduation photos dating to the early 1980s had been tossed away with garbage bags and other debris.
“I was kind of shocked,” Carnell said.
Carnell, who graduated from St. JP II in 1989, is one several members of his family who went to the school, including his daughter, who recently finished Grade 9 there. The photos had hung on the walls for years, making a visible timeline of local history.
“I remember walking into the school with her and showing her all the old grad pictures of myself and aunt and uncle and other names that are familiar,” Carnell said. “It's the history part I saw that just got thrown away.”
With the newly built St. Andre Bessette ready to open in the fall, St. JP II just wrapped up its final year as Fort Saskatchewan’s Catholic high school. It’s still unclear exactly how the pictures ended up in the trash, but it seems the disposal happened as staff worked to get the building ready for its conversion into a middle school.
Carnell snapped a picture of the mess before getting the go-ahead from the front office to search the dumpster for the photo of his graduating class. But with broken glass making the hunt too difficult, he ended up going home empty-handed.
On Saturday morning, Carnell posted a picture of the abandoned photos to the Fort Sask Informed Facebook page.
“And then it kind of went crazy after that,” he said.
“Sad,” “irresponsible,” “ruthless, and “terrible” were among the many disapproving words commenters used in over 200 responses to Carnell’s post. A few commenters defended the school, pointing to the time crunch associated with end-of-year cleanup and moving. Others questioned why the school hadn’t made plans to make the photos available to former grads.
After learning about Carnell’s Facebook post on Saturday morning, 2017 grad Ashlyn Cherniwchan and a friend drove to the school to try to retrieve the photos.
“They’re valuable memories and I don’t think that they should have been mistreated like that,” she said. “Once I started figuring out that there were the older pictures, it made me more upset that you’re throwing out these memories of a high school that no longer exists.”
Cherniwchan and her friend worked for over an hour salvaging over two dozen of the class photos from the dumpster. Cherniwchan made her own Facebook post detailing the rescue mission, and a small crowd gathered at the scene as local former grads came to collect the photographs for safekeeping.
Carnell returned to the scene to join in the search, donning cut-resistant gloves before climbing into the garbage bin. He never managed to find the faces of the class of ’89, but did come across the oldest picture, an Our Lady of the Angels graduation photo from 1982.
"The best part of the whole story was a lady on Facebook goes, 'My parents couldn't afford a grad book. Is my year there?' Boom. I was there. we pulled that out, put it aside. That person came and got their grad picture," Carnell said.
EICS stepped in to address the controversy on Saturday morning, saying in a statement that the pictures were inadvertently tossed due to a miscommunication.
“Please know that this was certainly not our intention but rest assured that plans were already in place to have the JP II class photos present digitally (online) and a presence at the new high school opening this fall. EICS regrets any cause for concern by former graduates and please know that this was never our intention. Again, our sincere apologies for this unfortunate cause of events.”
Susan Johnson, ElCS communications director, said that the digitized photos will be displayed in a folder in the foyer at the new high school in September and on both schools' websites.
Most of the photos Cherniwchan and her friend removed from the dumpster have been picked up by graduates or their family members. As of Monday afternoon, she still had some years left, including 2004-05, 2006-07, 2011-12, and 2013-14.