For whom the bells toll

The school-clos­ing ap­peals pro­cess is fin­ished, and raw feel­ings re­main for many in the Cath­ol­ic com­munity.

Sev­enth-grade stu­dent Dean Nu­gent, 13, sits out­side St, Wil­li­am after the sh­cool an­nounced it will be clos­ing on Fri­day, Feb. 17.


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.” ••


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