18 Catholic schools are granted a reprieve

Bishop Michael Fitzgerald, who oversees education for the archdiocese, and superintendent Mary Rochford field questions. A commission had slated 45 elementary schools for closing; 24 filed appeals.
Bishop Michael Fitzgerald, who oversees education for the archdiocese, and superintendent Mary Rochford field questions. A commission had slated 45 elementary schools for closing; 24 filed appeals. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 18, 2012

In the end, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput spared more Catholic elementary schools from closing than many parents and parishioners had expected.

Officials from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia on Friday announced that Chaput had approved 18 of the 24 appeals filed by Catholic elementary schools.

"Naturally, there will be a strong focus on the final decision resulting from the appeals," Bishop Michael Fitzgerald, who oversees education, said Friday. "But it is also important to realize that today is about taking the next steps in securing sustainability, accessibility, affordability, and continued excellence in the schools in the archdiocese."

He said that the high number of appeals granted did not mean that the 16-member blue-ribbon commission that recommended the closings and mergers in January had overreached.

Fitzgerald said commission members had realized that additional information might come forward that should be considered. "I would say that the commission is certainly in harmony with the appeals process," he said, adding that the goal always had been to find ways to ensure the viability of Catholic education.

Parents and parishioners said they were grateful that they had an opportunity to make their cases and that review panels - and the archbishop - had listened.

"They said they had listened to our appeal, and it was exactly what they wanted to hear - facts, not emotions," said Rev. John Eckert, pastor of Holy Trinity in Morrisville, which won its appeal. Instead of closing and forming a regional school at St. John the Evangelist in Morrisville, Holy Trinity will remain open as a parish school.

But parents at St. John said they were blindsided by the news that as a result of Holy Trinity's successful appeal, their school will close in June. They had no idea it was in danger.

Archdiocesan officials also said plans were under way to designate up to 14 schools that serve low-income students as independent Catholic "mission schools" with permanent outside funding to ensure that Catholic education remains available in their neighborhoods.

According to the archdiocese, the appeals that were granted will result in several elementary schools remaining parish schools, others being merged to create regional schools, and some being closed outright.

Fitzgerald, who announced Chaput's decisions about the elementary schools, said an announcement on the fate of four high schools targeted for closure would be delayed a week.

"Postponement is due to recently received information regarding potential donors that has to be explored before any final decision is made," he said.

He and other archdiocesan officials declined to confirm reports that a group of prospective donors might be prepared to offer $10 million to save the high schools.

Fitzgerald said the potential benefactors had requested information about all four schools: St. Hubert Catholic High School for Girls in Holmesburg, Conwell-Egan in Fairless Hills, Monsignor Bonner-Archbishop Prendergast in Drexel Hill, and West Catholic.

Hubert, Conwell-Egan and Bonner-Prendergast have been engaged in spirited fund-raising. Brother Tim Ahern, who had been president of West, was the only high school president who had not challenged the recommendation to close. He resigned Feb. 9, saying the atmosphere at the school had become "untenable." West teachers had submitted their own appeal.

Friday's announcement on the elementary-school appeals came six weeks after the 16-member commission studying Catholic education in the five-county archdiocese called for closing 45 Catholic elementary schools and four of the 17 archdiocesan high schools as part of a broad restructuring plan.

The commission said 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 more than half of the archdiocese's 156 Catholic elementary schools.

Chaput had outlined an appeals process for schools that thought that the commission's recommendations were based on incorrect information. The commission had called for 81 parish schools to form 37 regional schools. As a result of the appeals process, 49 schools will now form 23 regional schools, according to Superintendent Mary Rochford.

"I don't want anybody thinking of 'a regional school - you lost,' " she said. "Regional schools are going to be the wave of the future, and it's difficult for people to change."

Fitzgerald said that the archdiocese had promised the schools that the information they presented for their appeals would remain confidential. But he said that the review process had considered the schools' finances, enrollment, and educational programs.

Across the archdiocese, schools reacted to the news of the appeals in their own ways. St. Mark in Bristol staged a rally in the parking lot Friday morning to celebrate the news that the school, which had been slated to close, would remain a parish school. A Mass of thanksgiving followed the rally.

"Kids were holding signs saying, 'We're here forever,' and people were honking their horns," the Rev. Dennis Mooney said. "The whole town is celebrating - Catholics, Protestants, everybody. We're the only alternative school in the borough."

St. Cecilia in the city's Fox Chase section, which has more than 669 students, had been set to become a regional school under a new name with students drawn from St. William, a small school 2.5 miles away in Lawncrest. The pastor at St. Cecilia had promised the students he would win ring the church bells if the school won its appeal. Thursday, students were told to open the windows and listen.

"They knew that when they heard the church bells ringing that the appeal was granted," Sister Mary Jane Carr, the principal, said Friday. "There was great jubilation among the children and the faculty."

St. Cecilia will remain a parish school and retain its name.

Carr said the school officials had told the appeals panel that 604 of the students were parishioners and that losing the school's identity would "upset a large community that was stable, and had many dedicated professionals here for a number of years."

Carr said the school asked for permission to welcome the St. William students but remain St. Cecilia.

"St. William School was struggling, and we welcome them with open arms," she said.

At Holy Trinity in Morrisville and St. Mark in Bristol Borough, students, teachers, and parents also got a tip that their schools would stay open when both churches' bells rang about 11 a.m. Thursday.

"That was my promise," Eckert, the pastor of Holy Trinity, said Friday. "Kids were crying."

But amid the celebration, there was shock and sadness in a few spots. As was the case with St. John the Evangelist in Morrisville, parents at Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Media were stunned to learn their school would close in June.

The school had been expecting to be the site of a new regional school with St. John Chrysostom in Wallingford. But St. John's winning its appeal means that Nativity now will close, and Media students will be expected to travel to Wallingford.

Karen Rosen, the mother of a kindergartner at Nativity, whose family has been active in the school and parish for 50 years, said Nativity parents were shut out of the process.

"We didn't have a chance to defend ourselves," she said.

Rosen was among distraught parents and parishioners who attended a candlelight vigil Friday night.

"It's an important part of our lives," she said. "And not being given the chance to fight for it is upsetting."


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

Inquirer staff writer Kristen A. Graham contributed to this article.

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