OLOL School fund-raising begins

February 6, 2009
By

JOHN RUCH

BROOKSIDE—Parents at the Our Lady of Lourdes (OLOL) School have started their attempt to raise $500,000 in the next three months to save the last Catholic Church school in Jamaica Plain from closure.

Church officials shocked parents last month with the surprise announcement that the century-old school was slated to close forever in June. Officials had known about the OLOL School’s financial problems for about five months, but had not told parents or alumni. Outraged par-ents at an OLOL meeting demanded and got the chance to raise money and save the school.

A group of 10 parents is now fund-raising under the name Save OLOL Organization, one of the parents told the Gazette. The parent wanted to remain anonymous in this article.

Rev. Robert Hennessy, the auxiliary bishop of Boston, previously told the parents he would consider keeping the school open through June of 2010 if they can raise the half-a-million dollars to plug a budget deficit. The Save OLOL parent spoke optimistically about the effort in a Gazette interview.

“I think we have a good chance of getting this money,” she said. “Those numbers weren’t that bad.”

One of the school’s problems is declining enrollment. The parent indicated that Save OLOL might work on that, too.

“Had we known the school was short 30 kids, all that would take is more marketing,” she said, referring to the enrollment drop since 2005.

Terry Donilon, spokesperson for the Boston Archdiocese, said in an e-mail to the Gazette that the archdiocese remains skeptical of the “Herculean effort” required to raise the money.

“[W]e are moving forward with the understanding that Our Lady of Lourdes School will close at the end of the current school year,” Donilon wrote. “We are obligated to provide for a smooth and seamless transition for students and families that plan to register at a neighboring Catholic school and to do so means we have to be focused on all the details involved.”

For information on the Save OLOL campaign, see www.SaveOLOL.org or contact the group at info@saveolol.org or 524-6136.

OLOL School, part of the OLOL parish at 54 Brookside Ave., is a K1-8 school with 187 students. Outrage over the school’s closure has re-vealed some unhappiness with the Capuchin Franciscan friars, a Catholic religious order that took over administration and pastoral care of the parish last year.

Among the people raising that concern is Marie Lindsey, the mother of three OLOL School alumni and a former OLOL parishioner who left the church when the popular former pastor, Monsignor Charles Bourque, retired last year.

“There are many ways to get money. They don’t want the school,” Lindsey told the Gazette, referring to the Capuchins.

Lindsey is also president of JP’s Irvyl Events & Services, an event-planning and concierge service business. Last year, Lindsey said, she approached OLOL about holding outside weddings and similar events at OLOL’s Parish Center, providing the parish with rental fees. Church offi-cials rebuffed the idea, she said.

Lindsey now runs similar events, including movie nights for youths, at the nearby Boylston Congregational Church on Amory Street.

Donilon said officials reviewed Lindsey’s proposal, but that it did not make financial sense. “The cost to upgrade the building to allow such activity was prohibitive and unrealistic,” he said.

“Every effort has been exhausted to keep it open this long and while [closure] is not what we want to do, it is simply the course of action we must take,” Donilon said, noting the declining enrollment.

Lindsey is also skeptical of the $500,000 fund-raising campaign. “It doesn’t make sense to raise money and close it again [after 2010],” she said.

A similar parents’ campaign to save the former St. Andrew the Apostle School in Forest Hills in 2005 failed after getting nowhere near its $350,000 goal.

City Councilor John Tobin, who was formerly the alumni and development director at West Roxbury’s Catholic Memorial School, said that the OLOL School appeared to have been “teetering” financially for some time.

“They’re dwindling,” he said of local Catholic schools. “Look at Jamaica Plain now. It’s incredible.”

Catholic schools are in trouble nationwide, as a New York Times article noted on Jan. 18—a few days after the OLOL School closure was announced. The problems include declining church attendance, aging buildings and far lower populations of nuns who used to teach for free. Mary Grassa O’Neill, the Boston Archdiocese’s superintendent of schools, repeated many of those points in an opinion article released to the media last week.

In parish-run schools like OLOL, the school is ultimately managed by the pastor, who usually has little financial or educational training. A common theme in church school reform, the Times noted, is more professional oversight and more involvement by parents and alumi.

In other Catholic dioceses, school-saving strategies have included allowing non-Catholic students, seeking donations from outside founda-tions and tithing parishioners. Most dramatically, the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. turned several of its schools into public charter schools.

A 2006 report on the future of Catholic education by a Notre Dame University task force suggested such strategies as closer partnerships with Catholic colleges.

Another of the task force’s suggestions was attracting more Latino students. OLOL School has a large Latino student population. Some par-ents expressed concern that the Boston Archdiocese is favoring suburban schools with a greater white population. Church officials have indi-cated that closures are done on a case-by-case basis.

Reaffirming the Archdiocese’s commitment to its overall school system in her opinion article, Grassa O’Neill quoted St. Thomas Aquinas, the patron saint of Catholic education, as saying, “Wonder is the desire for knowledge.”

As it happens, St. Thomas Aquinas parish on South Street was the first JP parish to have a church school. The St. Thomas Aquinas schools, whose alumni include Mayor Thomas Menino, were also the first local Catholic schools to close more than 30 years ago.