How O'Neill organized effort to save four Catholic high schools in Philadelphia

A student from St. Hubert's Catholic High School for Girls on Torresdale Avenue rides on another's shoulders as they celebrate the decision of the archdiocese not to close the school.
A student from St. Hubert's Catholic High School for Girls on Torresdale Avenue rides on another's shoulders as they celebrate the decision of the archdiocese not to close the school. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 26, 2012

Before his mother died in September, developer J. Brian O'Neill promised her he would help the Roman Catholic Church.

To honor that pledge, O'Neill got involved with his friends' efforts to save Monsignor Bonner-Archbishop Prendergast in Drexel Hill and St. Hubert Catholic High School for Girls after a blue-ribbon commission on Jan. 6 had recommended closing them - along with Conwell-Egan in Fairless Hills and Philadelphia's West Catholic - as part of a plan to ensure the viability of Catholic education in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

Yet, the O'Neill-led campaign that raised $12 million and resulted in Friday's surprise announcement that all four schools had been saved was hatched in a meeting just two weeks ago.

West Catholic - the only high school whose president had not appealed the commission's recommendation - was the catalyst.

"It actually started with two friends of mine from the Main Line, who wish to remain anonymous," O'Neill said Saturday in an interview with The Inquirer. "And it was my friend's wife who called me on the phone and said she wanted to see that West stayed open."

'Very tenacious'

On Feb. 11, as snow swirled outside, O'Neill met at a Main Line home with those two friends and State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams (D., Phila.), who told him how important the 95-year-old West was for its students and the city.

"Basically, they told me there was no way that West could close and that we all needed to get to work to keep it open," he said.

"Tony Williams and our friends are very tenacious. My one friend would call me every morning and ask me: 'Did we save West yet?' "

Another friend pulled in Conwell-Egan.

"And the next thing you know," O'Neill said, "we had a four-school marathon 'Save Our School Program.' "

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput announced Friday that the endangered high schools would remain open, thanks to $12 million in donations and pledges. He said an independent foundation would be created to raise $100 million in the next five years to help all Catholic schools.

But he said that the schools' continued survival depended on the expansion of the state's educational tax-credit program and the passage of voucher legislation in Harrisburg.

"The grassroots efforts to save these schools, coupled with the advocacy of legislators and the generosity of many who wish to make our schools healthy again, brought us to this innovative new model for Catholic secondary education," Chaput said at an afternoon news conference that drew Williams, other state legislators, and Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley.

H. Edward Hanway, a member of the commission and a former chairman and chief executive of Cigna, will chair what is being called the Faith in the Future Foundation.

He said $12 million in donations and pledges had been received as part of an effort to raise $15 million by May 1 to cover operating costs and high school deficits.

"Today marks the dawn of a new era in Catholic education in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia," Hanway said.

In addition to providing financial support, the foundation will offer guidance on marketing and recruiting at the 17 archdiocesan high schools, which send 92 percent of their graduates to college.

Archdiocese spokeswoman Donna Farrell said Saturday that the high school registration deadline would be extended beyond March 1. Any students from the four schools who registered for the fall at other archdiocesan high schools can switch back.

The Catholic schools had been in turmoil since last month, when the commission recommended closing the four high schools based on their histories of dropping enrollment, forecasts of continuing decline, and the costs of maintaining underused facilities.

The plans also included recommendations to shutter 45 Catholic elementary schools to create regional schools.

Since 2001, enrollment has plunged 34 percent in archdiocesan high schools and 38 percent in elementary schools.

A week ago, the archdiocese announced that Chaput had approved 18 of the 24 appeals filed by elementary schools challenging recommended closures and mergers.

The high school decisions had been expected at the same time. But officials said those announcements had been delayed about a week by recently received information about potential donors.

Chaput acknowledged that given the commission's January recommendations, the news he gave Friday was more upbeat than he had expected.

"In the past week we have had wonderful new support for our schools coming forth from the business and philanthropic community," Chaput said. "These are major donors, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, who respect the huge value of Catholic schools."

He thanked O'Neill for organizing and leading the effort. The archbishop said the donors had asked to remain anonymous.

'Hard work'

O'Neill said Saturday that so far, there were 10 major donors. "Ultimately," he said, "we'll have 100."

He is not one of the 10.

"I've had some business difficulties for the last four years," said O'Neill, chief executive of O'Neill Properties Group L.P. of King of Prussia. "I did a lot of hard work, and I convinced others to support the program. But I was not a major donor - not because I didn't want to be, but the business has had some difficulties. And it's not a good year for us."

He said his company had helped with the fund-raising campaign.

O'Neill said he and Hanway had been talking about innovations in Catholic education for months. As the idea for the foundation developed, he urged Hanway to become the chairman.

"Two weeks ago, I called him in Florida and said, 'Ed, there's no way we can do this without your leadership.' "

Hanway on Saturday pointed out that the commission had called for creating such an independent foundation. O'Neill, he said, had contacted him and said, " 'What if we could jump-start this foundation?' Brian's energy is tremendous and his commitment is unquestioned."

Hanway added, "With his energy and his contacts we were able to identify supporters who were able to make major investments in Catholic education if they were confident it would be a new day."

The foundation, O'Neill said, plans to spur creative academic approaches "so that when people want to support this thing, they know they are supporting the most innovative educational system in the world."

O'Neill, 52, who did not attend any of the archdiocesan schools and left Lower Merion High School before receiving a diploma, said he was inspired by his mother, Peggy. A businesswoman and philanthropist, she had briefly been a Sacred Heart nun before marrying his father and becoming the mother of six sons.

One of his brothers, along with his mother, stressed the value of a Catholic education, O'Neill said.

His brother Michael heads the board of the nonprofit Business Leadership Organized for Catholic Schools. Michael O'Neill also helped found the Philadelphia School Partnership, which is working to expand successful public, charter, and private schools in the city.

According to Brian O'Neill, a small group, including Hanway, labored for two weeks, lining up donors and working with Chaput and other officials at the archdiocese.

He praised the archbishop, who arrived in Philadelphia in September and inherited the commission that had been established by Cardinal Justin F. Rigali, his predecessor.

"It was really his leadership and his ability to go in a different direction," O'Neill said of Chaput. "Don't forget, the blue-ribbon commission had recommended closure. It was ironclad, and he reversed those decisions. That took great courage on his part."

O'Neill stressed that the archbishop had been demanding.

"We negotiated with him for a week," O'Neill said. "He was very tough on us because he wanted to make sure that if we went with this, it was going to work. But at the same time, he ended every conversation by saying how much he wanted a solution to keep the schools open."

The talks, which O'Neill described as "grueling," involved face-to-face meetings, conference calls, and e-mail exchanges that continued late into Thursday night. O'Neill said he had expected Chaput would make his decision that night.

Instead, Chaput said, " 'I'm going to spend the night praying on what we do tomorrow.' "

And there were a few details about financial goals and other issues that had to be ironed out.

'The last minute'

"We were on the phone at 6 a.m. on a conference call Friday morning," O'Neill said.

Then Hanway had to jump on a train to New York City to attend a 9 a.m. board meeting. He continued to participate in the negotiations by text message, and returned to Philadelphia by train in time to speak at the 3 p.m. news conference.

O'Neill said he had not been sure that the plan was firm and that Chaput would make the announcement until 2:59 p.m. Friday.

"I kid you not," O'Neill said. "We had called the politicians, but we were negotiating up until the last minute."

At the news conference, Williams said: "We would not be here at this moment were it not for the archbishop, who has operated on faith, sound judgment, and a good plan."

Williams, who has pledged to continue to work for passage of voucher legislation, added: "There are a few heroes in this room. One in particular I only met not too long ago. He's not sitting in front with us. He's not looking for attention.

"But, Brian O'Neill, you're an angel."


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

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