At Our Lady of Ransom Elementary School, the feeling is one of deep disappointment that the school will close in June.
At St. William, which is also closing, the feeling is one of anger, most of it directed at the pastor.
On Jan. 6, an Archdiocese of Philadelphia blue ribbon commission announced its recommendations regarding the closings of elementary and high schools.
The archdiocese allowed all affected schools to appeal, with the final decision to be made by Archbishop Charles Chaput. The outcomes were to be announced on Feb. 17.
St. Hubert, Conwell-Egan, Monsignor Bonner/Archbishop Prendergast and West Catholic high schools were all recommended for closure. All but West Catholic appealed.
Their fates will be determined sometime this week, as potential donors have come forward at the last minute in an effort to save the high schools, including West Catholic.
The following eight local elementary schools were impacted by the recommendations:
• St. Martin of Tours, in Oxford Circle, which will become a “mission” school, eligible for aid from Catholic universities, religious orders, the archdiocese and Business Leaders Organized for Catholic Schools (BLOCS). It did not appeal.
• St. Timothy, in Lower Mayfair, to be merged with Bridesburg’s Pope John Paul II at the St. Tim’s building. Neither school appealed, and the new name is expected to be Blessed Trinity Regional Catholic School.
• St. Matthew, in Mayfair, and Our Lady of Consolation, in Tacony, were to be merged into St. Matt’s building. Our Lady of Consolation did not appeal, but St. Matthew did, refusing to give up its name and uniforms and put staff at risk of losing their jobs. During the appeals process, Our Lady of Consolation agreed that the name should remain St. Matthew. In the end, St. Matthew won its appeal. Next year, students at Our Lady of Consolation — which largely serves families of Italian heritage — can go to St. Matt’s or to their home parish school.
• St. Cecilia, in Fox Chase, and St. William, in Lawndale, were to be merged in St. Cecilia’s building. St. William did not appeal, but the Rev. Charles Bonner, pastor at St. Cecilia, did appeal, and it will remain a parish school. Students at St. William can go to St. Cecilia, St. Martin’s or Presentation BVM.
• Resurrection of Our Lord, in Rhawnhurst, and Our Lady of Ransom, in Castor Gardens, were to be merged in Resurrection’s building. Resurrection did not appeal, but Our Lady of Ransom did. The school lost its appeal, and students will head to Castor and Shelmire to attend what is expected to be called Resurrection Regional Catholic School.
In all, Chaput granted 18 of the 24 appeals.
Bishop Michael Fitzgerald made the official announcement during a Friday morning news conference at the archdiocese’s Center City headquarters. He said the six-week appeals period was marked by emotion, generosity and a commitment by many to keep their schools open.
“Catholic education is excellent education,” he said.
The decisions will leave 49 schools merging into 23 regional schools.
“Regional schools are going to be the wave of the future,” said Mary Rochford, superintendent of archdiocese schools.
Spirits were low at St. William.
“I am sad and I am upset. I feel very bad for these teachers and feel very bad for these children,” said the principal, Sister Catherine Clarke.
Sister Catherine understood the appeal by St. Cecilia, which was shocked to be on the Jan. 6 list.
“They’re a big school. They weren’t prepared to be part of the process. I’m not one bit angry with St. Cecilia’s,” she said.
Sister Catherine was hoping St. William would become a mission school, but that didn’t happen.
“Because we didn’t ask,” she said.
Sister Catherine had no input in the decision to not seek mission school status. That would be the pastor, the Rev. Joseph Watson.
Third-grade teacher Toby Garecht, who has been on the faculty for 25 years and sent four children to the school, has an easy explanation for why St. William is closing.
“It’s because our pastor wanted us to close,” she said. “It’s a disgrace, it really is.”
After the Jan. 6 announcement, Watson declined to appeal.
Teachers later got their hands on the Feb. 5 Resurrection bulletin. The Rev. Joseph Howarth, the Resurrection pastor, shared a letter written to Rochford and Bishop Fitzgerald and signed by Howarth, principal Joan Stulz and the entire faculty and staff.
The letter mentions a possible adversarial and counterproductive situation created by forced school mergers, adding that it could end in irreparable damage.
Then it says, “If we may refer to a valid and sensitive point offered by Father Joseph Watson, the pastor of Saint William Parish. Father presented a passionate case for the closing of St. William School, rather than regionalizing it at St. Cecilia. Clearly, in a point-by-point presentation, he defined why it would be better for St. William Parish to simply close, rather than merge it with Saint Cecilia Parish. His strongest point clearly defined that the option of ‘choice’ would assuage many of the difficult options faced by the St. William parish community in dealing with the untenable situation that presently exists in the school.”
“You can’t imagine how distraught I am,” said Raenel Baker, a kindergarten teacher on the faculty for 13 years. “With him asking to shut us down, it’s left our teachers out of a job. He hung us out to dry.”
Baker also faulted the pastor, who is a St. William graduate, for leaving parents “scrambling” for a new school.
Watson on Friday sent home a letter encouraging parents to consider sending their kids to St. Cecilia because there would probably be a better chance of the teachers being hired. He noted a Feb. 26 visiting day.
“Fr. Bonner is willing to open a fourth classroom for each grade as long as there are enough students,” the letter states.
Baker was furious, contending that Watson is putting the parents in the unfair position of preserving the teaching jobs.
“The nerve. That’s criminal,” she said.
Parents were also disheartened by the lack of an appeal.
“I’m absolutely outraged by it,” said Michelle Smith, who has children in kindergarten and fourth grade, whom she’ll send to Presentation.
Students aren’t happy that they are getting uprooted.
“It’s horrible,” said fourth-grader Michael Schuch, who’ll go to Presentation.
“I’m upset. I’ve been here since kindergarten,” said fifth-grader Micah Dwirantwi, who’ll go to Young Scholars Charter School.
Eighth-grader Charles Coyle, who has three older sisters who graduated from St. William, will be part of the final graduating class. Their teacher, Mary Kots, has spent 32 years on the faculty.
“It’s sad that all the little kids will have to move now,” Charles said.
At Masses last weekend, Watson maintained that the closing is a better option than a merger for students because they can choose their next school. He pointed out that, after the Jan. 6 announcement, 22 families asked to be released from St. William Parish to register at Presentation. Now, although the school will still close later this year, those families can remain at St. William, strengthening the parish itself.
Still, he is encouraging parents to send their kids to St. Cecilia. He notes the school’s science lab and gym, which are not available at St. William, and the IHM nuns on staff.
At Our Lady of Ransom, parents were sorry to see their appeal fail.
“It’s upsetting. It’s a family school,” said Kevin Wood, whose daughter Sophia is in pre-kindergarten.
“The school is small, and everyone knows each other. The kids get along. What are we going to do? It is what it is, unfortunately,” said Maria Ortiz, who has a son in pre-kindergarten and a daughter in fifth grade.
Since 18 of the 24 appeals were granted, Our Lady of Ransom was one of six schools that lost its appeal.
“Eighteen, and we weren’t one of them. I’m just shocked. Shocked,” said a teacher who did not want her name used because she’ll be applying for a position at the merged school with Resurrection.
Our Lady of Ransom does not have a pastor, but the Rev. Thomas Sodano serves as parochial administrator. He attended the appeal hearing along with principal Grace McGuirl and the parish business manager and finance council president.
Bishop Fitzgerald delivered the bad news in a phone call shortly after 11 a.m. on Feb. 16. Sodano was so taken aback at the news that he forgot to ask why the appeal failed, and Fitzgerald did not offer specifics. The parochial administrator plans to get an explanation, but it won’t change anything.
The new principal will be chosen by Sodano and Howarth. McGuirl, who was principal at Frankford’s Mater Dolorosa when it closed in 2003, has the option to apply.
Sodano, who’s also the minister at St. Hubert, figured Our Lady of Ransom stood a chance because it has a library and offers art, music, physical education, technology, world language and honors math classes. He feels especially sorry for the seventh-graders.
“It’s a nice class. They were looking forward to graduating from Our Lady of Ransom. Now they’re going to be graduating from Resurrection Regional School,” he said.
Sodano believes the appeal might have failed because of the school’s proximity to Resurrection, St. Matthew, St. Martin of Tours, St. Timothy and St. Cecilia.
“Five of the biggest schools in Northeast Philly are around us,” he said. “I can look out the window and see St. Tim’s. We can’t make the argument that there’s nowhere else to go.” ••EndFragment