JP’s last Catholic school could close

January 26, 2009
By

JOHN RUCH

Parents try to raise $500K

BROOKSIDE—Our Lady of Lourdes (OLOL) School, the last Catholic Church school in Jamaica Plain, will close forever in June unless parents can raise $500,000 to buy an additional year, church leaders revealed last week.

Church officials have known about the century-old school’s desperate financial situation for five months, but only recently revealed it to parents, and only in the form of the closure announcement. About 200 shocked and angry family members and alumni complained bitterly at a Jan. 14 meeting at OLOL’s Parish Center that revealed a fractured relationship between the school and the Capuchin Franciscan friars who recently took over the parish.

OLOL Pastor Brendan Buckley expressed sorrow over the closure, saying it is rooted in declining enroll-ment and a “staggering” $240,000 budget deficit. The K1-8 school has 187 students—a drop of 30 students since 2005.

But Buckley also ran into trouble from parents when he told them that the identity of who paid for re-cent, attractive renovations to the Capuchins’ OLOL building is “none of your business.” (As it turns out, the Capuchin order paid for the work with its own separate funds.) And, challenged by a former teacher to describe OLOL’s specific mission statement, he could not.

“We should have been given the opportunity…to have a say about our kids’ education and support,” said one parent.

“It’s our children,” complained another. “It’s not some [financial] figure or some chess game. It’s our children and our faith.”

Rev. Robert Hennessey, the auxiliary bishop of Boston, partly calmed the crowd by saying he would con-sider keeping the school open if parents can raise half-a-million dollars by April.

“You’re asking for faith. I’m going to give faith in you,” Hennessey said. “It’s not an impossible task, but it’s pretty close.”

“I believe in miracles myself,” said Mary Grassa O’Neill, the Boston Archdiocese’s superintendent of schools, adding that it will probably take a miracle to save the school.

Meanwhile, church officials are offering guaranteed seats at the same tuition in other Catholic schools to any OLOL student. Officials urged parents to attend an informational forum with 11 Catholic schools on Jan. 26 at the Parish Hall.

School and church closures have become common in the Archdiocese due to changing demographics, lingering effects of the scandal of priests sexually abusing children and other factors.

“We’re in a transformational phase right now,” Donilon said of the Catholic school system. “We’re operat-ing on an old model that doesn’t work anymore.” He noted aging buildings, higher costs and a steep decline in the population of nuns who used to teach in schools for free.

Six years ago, there were still three Catholic schools in JP. The Blessed Sacrament School in Hyde Square closed in 2003, and the St. Andrew the Apostle School in Forest Hills closed in 2005.

A similar parental effort to save St. Andrew’s School by raising $350,000 failed after falling far short of that goal.

The entire OLOL parish is also not financially healthy, officials revealed at the meeting, describing a $100,000 budget deficit for the church part. Buckley said he recently had to lay off two staff members, add-ing, “It broke my heart to do that.”

Archdiocese spokesperson Terry Donilon indicated to the Gazette that the presence of the independently funded Capuchins makes the parish more financially stable and sustainable. While the school’s financial problems were kept quiet, the parish has been holding a major annual fund-raiser whose progress is docu-mented on the church web site.

But the entire Blessed Sacrament parish memorably closed the year after its school did. Its services were absorbed by OLOL. A major reason that the OLOL parish was kept alive instead of Blessed Sacrament was be-cause OLOL still had a functioning school, church sources told the Gazette at the time.

If the OLOL School closes, the future of its building at 54 Brookside Ave. is unclear. Asked by a parent whether there are any buyers lined up, Buckley said, “The answer to the question is no. No one has offered a nickel.”

“Typically, what happens is, [vacated Archdiocese] buildings are leased or sold, and usually to entities that are important to the community and that [do] things that aren’t offensive to the church,” Donilon told the Gazette.

Internal division

Last year, OLOL held a year-long celebration of its 100th birthday as a parish. The ceremonies included a centennial Mass performed by Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the archbishop of the Boston Archdiocese, who is also a Capuchin friar.

But amid the celebrating, the parish was undergoing major changes that drew clear lines of division at the Jan. 14 school meeting.

The Capuchins moved into two church buildings and began staffing the parish. Monsignor Charles Bourque, a priest and the parish’s well-liked longtime pastor, retired. He was replaced by Buckley, a Capuchin friar.

It was revealed at the meeting that the Capuchins didn’t just move in. They paid $1.7 million for their buildings, which Bourque used in part to fund the school in an effort to stabilize it.

Now the Capuchins have been renovating their own building, but have never even visited the school, sev-eral parents and a former teacher complained repeatedly, with no contradiction from Buckley.

On the other hand, an increasing number of school parents and students have no connection with the OLOL parish. Donilon said that about 89 percent of the school’s families are not OLOL parishioners.

All of those differences added personal friction to the natural shock of the closure announcement and the anger about its secretiveness.

One explosion came when Buckley repeatedly dodged questions about who paid for renovations to the Capu-chins’ own building—including shiny copper gutters and a new fence—then told the crowd, “That’s none of your business.”

“That gentleman said it’s none of our business…That’s a man of God?” one parent later replied. “You don’t say that as an adult, and you certainly don’t say that as a priest of God.”

“This is not something a new pastor wants to do,” Buckley said. “I encountered certain realities when I came here in August…It was a very big surprise to me.”

Behind the scenes, church officials tried to find a solution, he said. The school’s teachers even offered to accept a salary freeze and higher health care co-payments, Buckley said. He said he was “grateful” for the offer, but that such savings still would not make the school “sustainable.”

But parents and alumni never knew—not even during the centennial celebrations that, many noted, would have been an excellent time to hold a fund-raiser. Grassa O’Neill claimed that Buckley mentioned the school’s problem from the pulpit in October, but acknowledged that no notice was given to school parents. She also acknowledged that officials decided on their own that parents could not afford any tuition increase or other fund-raising.

“We didn’t ask you,” Grassa O’Neill said.

One parent noted that this year’s deficit amounts to about $1,285 per student, noting that it is at least possible that parents could pay it.

Parent William Dirtion said the lack of any announcement indicates that officials don’t really want to save the school. “You’re dismissing the history with no compassion whatsoever,” he said.

Maria Gonzalez, grandmother of an OLOL student, and her daughter Yahira Alvarez suggested that the parish church building could be closed and sold to support the school.

“This [meeting] is a bigger turnout than the church has,” Alvarez told the Gazette, suggesting the large Parish Center could be used for worship instead.

Gonzalez said she “lost faith” in the Catholic Church because of the sexual abuse scandal, but still has faith in Catholic education. “Again, the kids are suffering. Again, the kids are paying for mistakes,” she told the Gazette, calling for the sale of the church building. “Why is that church more important than these kids?”

“Basically, my heart is broken,” school parent Colleen Scanlan said in an e-mail to the Gazette. “My child is going to cry. And they just lost some more Catholics. So the religion will eventually be banged into the ground.”

Some parents expressed concern that JP is being targeted for school closure, with white suburban schools being favored over inner-city ones with significant minority populations. Church officials indicated that closures are on a case-by-case basis.

Grassa O’Neill also revealed that the Archdiocese’s $90 million fundraiser to save other Catholic schools in Dorchester, Brockton and Gloucester is struggling, so OLOL cannot join that list. The Dorchester effort has a $70 million goal, but “only” $47 million in pledges, many of which are not actually being paid as planned, she said.

Church officials pledged to work with a parent committee on the fund-raising idea—including opening the financial books completely. But the officials also urged parents to consider the option of moving their kids to other schools.

The fund-raising idea came from the parents. “We don’t want your solution. We want to work together,” said one. “Nothing is impossible with God,” said another.

That did not satisfy parents interested in OLOL’s legacy and location, such as Alvarez, who said her son turned down a basketball scholarship to the much wealthier Catholic Memorial School in West Roxbury to stay in the neighborhood.

“It’s about here. It’s about Jamaica Plain,” Alvarez said. “It’s the last place in Jamaica Plain.”

Parents had another question: What if they move their kids to another Catholic school only to learn that it is closing, too?

“It’s a very good question,” Buckley said. Officials urged parents to ask the schools about their finan-cial health at the upcoming school forum.