Monica Yant Kinney: Catholic families chafe at schools mergers

Gary Pergolini, a St. Denis graduate, dons a T-shirt opposing naming the merged school after Cardinal John Foley. MONICA YANT KINNEY / Staff
Gary Pergolini, a St. Denis graduate, dons a T-shirt opposing naming the merged school after Cardinal John Foley. MONICA YANT KINNEY / Staff
Posted: May 21, 2012

So many parents and alumni of St. Denis Catholic School in Havertown supported merging with friendly CYO rival Annunciation B.V.M., the marriage should have gone off without a hitch.

Instead, parishioners hoping to embrace the past and future in a name were told the regional school would honor the late Cardinal John Foley. The decision was, in their pastor’s words, “nonnegotiable.”

Children voted on a mascot, only to have their choices (Cardinals, Falcons, or Phoenixes) rejected. Tuition at the new school will dip a bit for families with one child, but when mother of five Dorene VanLuvender asked why her bill had soared, she was told large families like hers were “a burden.”

Nearly two dozen Bulldawg boosters met with me last week to decry the mysterious loss of St. Denis’ $350,000 endowment. Weekly offerings are off by as much as 40 percent. Discontent runs so deep, some meet for Mass surreptitiously.

“My house, Sunday, 10:30 a.m.,” instructs one of the religious rebels at JD McGillicuddy’s Pub in Ardmore. Around the room, I watch a half-dozen heads nod their RSVPs. When Gary Pergolini stands, he reveals a shirt summing up his mood.

“The bottom line is, we’ve had no say about anything,” complains the man with Foley emblazoned, and crossed out, across his chest. “Everything has been dictated to us.”

Weeks before the end of school, and an era, in many Catholic communities, this is what’s come of the archdiocese’s ambitious “Faith in the Future” campaign?

St. Denis’ pastor, Msgr. James Graham, did not return calls to comment. Archdiocesan Schools Superintendent Mary Rochford downplays the disillusion.

Though the archdiocese rescinded some of the arranged marriages, she assures me that fund-raising remains brisk and all 21 regional schools will open next fall.

“There’s only one I’m worried about,” she says, mentioning resistance in East Falls and Manayunk to register at St. Blaise, named for a patron saint of healing.

“We created our own mess,” Rochford concedes. “We need to build a bridge, not just take the silence.”

Silence? I get calls and e-mails daily from parents committed to Catholic education but begging not to be taken for granted. Many tell me they’ve corresponded with Archbishop Charles Chaput in e-mail exchanges that start pleasantly but end with a priestly scolding.

In East Falls, parents are picking other Catholic schools or charters, even moving out of the city — anything except following orders.

In Media, Tom Castaldi and 30 families loyal to Nativity B.V.M. decamped en masse for another Media parish, St. Mary Magdalene.

“To me, it came down to pastoral gamesmanship,” says Castaldi. “We weren’t being communicated to. We couldn’t take it anymore. So we left.”

Yet Castaldi remains committed to religious education, as do many St. Denis parents.

“I’ve been told, ‘If you don’t like it, opt out,’ ” says VanLuvender, who ran the school auction and coaches field hockey. “I do have options. One is to stand up and fight for what I believe is right for my kids.”

Running on empty

It’s not that St. Denis or Annunciation families have animus toward Foley, a beloved Delaware County native who became the Vatican’s spokesman. But the combined school’s name should appeal to alumni from both parishes, they say, since fund-raising will be crucial to its survival. To them, Cardinal Foley K-8 just doesn’t resonate.

“Can’t it be Our Lady of Mercy?” asked 1979 St. Denis grad Kathy Moran, citing the enduring legacy of the Sisters of Mercy. “Did they run out of saints? Why did they have to name it after a priest?”

Rochford says collaboration was a goal, but “there was no mandate to put [names] to a vote.”

If the St. Denis community chafed at the name game, it felt bewildered and betrayed discovering their pastor tapped the endowment to pay bills — including the parish’s debt to the archdiocese.

The fund that Ardmore businessman and ’59 grad Lou Mongiello helped grow to $350,000 has just $11,000 left. Mongiello supported the school “substantially” when his sons attended, but won’t anymore.

“That,” he says, “would be like throwing money off a cliff.”

Contact Monica Yant Kinney at 215-854-4670,, or follow @myantkinney on Twitter. Read her blog at

Watch a video of “Chico’s Vibe” singer Dennis Chiccino singing the St. Denis School fight song at

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