Chaput grants at least 5 of 21 appeals from Catholic elementary schools to stay open

A.J. Thomson, a parent organizer at Fishtown's St. Laurentius School, wipes away a tear before Thursday's prayer meeting.
A.J. Thomson, a parent organizer at Fishtown's St. Laurentius School, wipes away a tear before Thursday's prayer meeting. (LAURENCE KESTERSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 17, 2012

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput granted at least five of the 21 Catholic elementary schools' appeals to remain open, according to early word leaking out Thursday.

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia was not expected to make an official announcement about the appeals until Friday morning. (Inquirer education writer Kristen Graham will live-tweet the announcement.)

Archdiocesan spokeswoman Donna Farrell said Chaput had canceled a trip to Rome this weekend because of the appeals process. She said Bishop Daniel Thomas would represent the archdiocese in Chaput's stead at the Vatican on Saturday when 22 new cardinals are scheduled to be inducted into the College of Cardinals.

According to parents, staff, and supporters, the elementary schools that won the appeals from the archdiocese include Holy Trinity in Morrisville, St. Mark in Bristol, St. Francis de Sales in Aston, St. Gabriel in South Philadelphia, and St. Laurentius school in Philadelphia's Fishtown neighborhood.

Other schools contacted said they would not comment until Friday.

Alumni, parents, and students at the three high schools that are fighting to remain open said Thursday night that they remained in suspense. Amid reports that major donors might have stepped forward to provide support, prayers continued for St. Hubert Catholic High School for Girls in Holmesburg, Conwell Egan in Fairless Hill, and Monsignor Bonner/Archbishop Prendergast, Drexel Hill. West Catholic did not file a formal appeal and is set to close in June.

"Still praying hard for our high schools!" one woman wrote on a Facebook page for Catholic school parents.

Meanwhile, Thursday night's homework assignments were canceled as part of the celebration at St. Gabriel in South Philadelphia. Church bells rang out in Bucks County, and thankful parishioners and parents gathered for a special prayer service at St. Laurentius on Thursday night to give thanks.

The Rev. Francis A. Gwiazda, pastor of St. Laurentius, said he received a phone call about 12:30 p.m. Thursday informing him that his school had been spared.

"This shows the power of prayer," Gwiazda said at the service. "I feel strongly that St. John Neumann answered our prayer. What were we going to do in Fishtown if there was no Catholic school?

"We're going to do everything to make this school alive and increase enrollment. Catholic education is alive in Fishtown. We're still going strong, thanks to the people."

Sixth grader Bernadette Breslin, 11, said: "I was ecstatic. To hear the news was awesome. It was 12:50 today when they told us - I remember the time. Our class was all cheering."

"Everyone told us that we would never win," said parent A.J. Thomson, whose daughter is a first grader at St. Laurentius.

"I think this has demonstrated that our community is singularly equipped to do this because of the kind of people who live here and their character. I'm happy as a Catholic, and I'm happy as a Fishtowner."

Holy Trinity posted a brief announcement on its website Thursday that said its appeal of a blue-ribbon commission's recommendation that it close in June and merge with another school had been granted.

And the church bells at St. Mark's started ringing Thursday morning, and parents celebrated the good news on the school's Facebook page: "St. Mark Loves Father Mooney and Supports Him 110%."

Other schools that were set to become regional schools and receive more students were also excited that their status would not change.

Parents and parishioners of nearby St. Ephrem in Bensalem celebrated. St. Ephrem appealed because it had been selected to join with St. Mark to form a regional school with a new name and identity.

"Rejoice!!! Our appeal was accepted," said an e-mail sent out by St. Ephrem School. "There will not be a merger between St. Ephrem and St. Mark schools. St. Ephrem School will continue as a parish school."

St. Thomas the Apostle in Glen Mills also was successful in appealing plans to make it the site of a regional school with St. Francis.

And St. Cecilia in Fox Chase won its appeal, too. The large school had been set to become a regional school under a new name that would draw students from St. William, a small school 2.5 miles away in Lawncrest.

St. Cecilia will remain a parish school; St. William will close in June.

A 16-member commission that had spent a year studying Catholic education in the five-county archdiocese had called for closing 45 Catholic elementary schools and four archdiocesan high schools as part of a broad restructuring plan.

The commission said that closings and consolidations were needed to address declining enrollment and bring financial stability to ensure the viability of Catholic education in the future.

Because the plans called for renaming and altering the combined schools, the commission's recommendations would have affected 81 elementary schools - nearly half of the 156 open now.

On the day of the announcement, Chaput said he had faith in the commission's recommendations but would review cases in which schools believed decisions were based on incorrect information.

The schools challenging the recommendations were required to file appeals by Feb. 1. They made presentations to archdiocesan panels which forwarded the information to Chaput. The archbishop said he would make the final decisions and hoped to announce them by midmonth.


Parents and students celebrated the reprieve for St. Laurentius school in Fishtown. See a video at www.philly.com/stlaurentius


Contact staff writer Martha Woodall at 215-854-2789 or martha.woodall@phillynews.com.

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