Monica Yant Kinney: Flood of donations seeks to save Bonner, Prendergast

Students absorb the news at Archbishop Prendergast High School. The school's president, the Rev. James Olson, advised parents to give students "time to grieve, but not too much time," because they need to focus on picking schools for the future.
Students absorb the news at Archbishop Prendergast High School. The school's president, the Rev. James Olson, advised parents to give students "time to grieve, but not too much time," because they need to focus on picking schools for the future. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 25, 2012

Over 45 days in 2006, wealthy philanthropists raised $68 million to stop Thomas Eakins' The Gross Clinic from skipping town. They unified behind civic pride and a love of art, but what mattered was reaching a magic number.

On Monday, the Rev. James Olson walked into a one-shot appeal hearing with an archdiocesan education committee with a similar story to tell and a bank statement burning a hole in his pocket.

The president of Monsignor Bonner and Archbishop Prendergast High Schools, slated to close in a massive reorganization of Catholic education in the city and suburbs, had 1.1 million reasons to keep the schools open.

That's the astonishing amount middle-class alumni and friends donated in just 13 days.

An 8-year-old dropped off an envelope laden with $12 in coins.

Grateful grads sent checks for $100 if they could spare it, less if they couldn't.

The biggest fish insisted on anonymity after donating $100,000, telling Olson, "Father, my friends know I did well, they just don't know how well."

By any measure, the Bonner-Prendie fund-raising sprint represents as deep a well of support as the Eakins effort - deeper, if you consider these givers possess far less.

"We've gotten more support in the last two weeks," Olson notes, "than in the last four years combined." Every penny speaks to enduring faith and appreciation.

But will it be enough?

A fire wall for the faithful

In their heyday, Bonner and Prendie, as they are known, had a combined enrollment of 5,000.

Today, 950 students occupy the 33-acre campus in Upper Darby.

The death knell rang on Friday, Jan. 6. The committee cited the schools' $330,000 annual deficit. And at $900,000 a year to operate, the largely empty buildings are the most expensive in the archdiocese.

Alumni and students didn't fully comprehend the crisis. The threat of closure, Olson notes, clarified that "they are who they are because of these schools. They can't abide to see that go away."

Havertown lawyer Joe Mattson, Bonner '71, e-mailed class reps dating to 1957 to rally 20,000 alums. Barbara Jara, Prendie '73, reached out to 18,000 more on her side.

Lindsay Wolf, a 1998 Prendie grad who works as an auditor, offered to crunch numbers to assist with the appeal. Kimberly Kelly, a calming spirit in the development office, opened an account at a nearby Beneficial Bank that only the alumni association could touch.

"Technically, the schools are owned by the archdiocese," Mattson explains. "There's some distrust. We had to set up a firewall. We needed to be able to tell people, 'You're giving money only to preserve Bonner and Prendie.' Otherwise, they wouldn't donate."

Digging deep

The first check arrived Jan. 9. Online donations began pouring into www.preservebonnerprendie.com Jan. 13. After the first week, the audacious "Million by Monday" goal seemed reachable.

As of yesterday, Kelly had 522 checks totaling more than $700,000. An additional 2,006 people donating online gave $362,585.77. A beef-and-beer raised $14,000 in cash.

The $1 million was a milestone, but not the end, Olson told his archdiocesan inquisitors. "We want to raise $5 million," he said. "That would give us stability."

His appeal focused on increasing tuition assistance to boost enrollment, which worked wonders for Roman Catholic and Little Flower. He excitedly shared plans to host college classes in unused space. "We presented our vision for the future and demonstrated that we can fund it."

The fund-raising continues as alumni and parents await their fate. But if the resuscitation fails and the schools close, every donor will be fully reimbursed.

"I have to give people confidence that we are about one thing and one thing only," Olson explains. "It would be wrong to use their money for anything else."


Contact Monica Yant Kinney at 215-854-4670, myant@phillynews.com or @myantkinney on Twitter. Read her blog at philly.com/blinq.

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