Church to 'slow down' school plans

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By Patrick McGroarty and Bill Forry
Feb. 21, 2007

Archdiocese officials and Pastors of Dorchester's Catholic churches responded this week to a story in last week's Reporter that outlined a preliminary plan to reorganize the eight remaining Catholic grade schools in Dorchester and Mattapan. On Wednesday, Archdiocese spokesman Terrence Donilon confirmed that Dorchester's pastors had been presented with documents outlining a preliminary model to establish a regional system at the site of four existing schools.

"The cart got before the horse here," said Donilon. "There is no final plan and there never should have been the distribution of a memorandum of understanding."

Donilon acknowledged that pastors from Dorchester churches were reviewing documents that involved specific schools and the creation of a new regional model for Catholic schools in Dorchester.

"I can confirm that [the pastors] have looked at documents that were being prepared far too early in the process," Donilon said. "The process needs to slow down, we need to get back to the issue of what it is we're trying to accomplish."

Last week's article created controversy on several levels: publicly, over the Reporter's editorial decision to publish a preliminary plan detailed by two pastors, one of whom was anonymous; among pastors, who appear at odds over which parishes to use as regional hubs; and within the hierarchy of the 2010 Initiative, where it was unclear precisely who is responsible for decision-making in the ongoing process.

A high-level source working with the 2010 Initiative confirmed this week that local pastors asked Cardinal Sean O'Malley for a degree of autonomy in the process to recast their parochial schools early on in a process that began 18 months ago, a request that he granted. But while the pastors decided upon a regional model, said the source, a more detailed memorandum of understanding was prepared by other Archdiocesan officials and presented to pastors for their approval at a recent meeting.

Fr. Vincent Von Euw, pastor of Saint Ambrose Church in Fields Corner, this week reiterated his objections to the 2010 Initiative, an effort to stabilize urban parochial schools that have been challenged by financial hardships and slumping enrollment figures that have already prompted the closure of four parish-run schools in Dorchester in the last five years.

Last week, Von Euw spoke out against developing plans that he said could, if implemented, result in the closure of four parish schools. Von Euw's account of the regional model, corroborated by a second Dorchester pastor, indicated that four schools had been preliminarily marked for closure: St. Angela, St. Brendan, St. Kevin and St. Mark.

In two letters generated by Archdiocesan officials, the Reporter's account was broadly challenged, although specific details of the article were not.

In a letter distributed at Sunday Masses titled "Joint Message from the Pastors of Dorchester and Mattapan," parishioners were told: "A recent report in the Dorchester Reporter has unfortunately and mistakenly characterized the efforts, which are just beginning, regarding the 2010 Schools Initiative in our community."

In an interview this week, Fr. Von Euw pressed his version of the story, claiming that schools discussed for use as regional sites had been named in closed-door meetings between local pastors.

When asked to reconcile the difference in positions between Von Euw -- who made it clear that a specific plan was being discussed -- and pastors who distributed a letter at churches this past weekend that inferred last week's Reporter story was wrong, Donilon said: "What they said is that no decisions made.

"We probably need to do an even better job of talking among ourselves," said Donilon. "We're not going to have everyone agree 100 percent. But, quite honestly the cart got before the horse here and we need to fix that from our side of the equation.

"We need to expand the net out to other stakeholders, parents, public officials. We understand that this impacts the whole neighborhood."

City Council President Maureen Feeney, who represents Dorchester's third district, sent a letter to Cardinal Sean O'Malley last Thursday in which she expressed frustration at learning of plans for significant changes to Dorchester's Catholic schools through the Reporter.

"We have long known that critical and even painful decisions need to be made for our schools to remain viable. I, and many in the community, have been willing to be a partner in these conversations," she wrote.

Edward Saunders Jr., executive director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, responded to Feeney's letter on O'Malley's behalf. In the letter, Saunders assured Feeney that no final decisions have been made.

"As we begin the process of planning for the future of Catholic schools in Dorchester, declining enrollments and the need for significant capital to upgrade facilities call for attention," wrote Saunders. "In light of these and other factors, to do nothing is not an option."

Saunders wrote that the earliest any plan could be enacted would be 2008, with implementation more likely in 2009, a timeline that had not previously been divulged. Saunders also told Feeney that Jack Connors, John Fish (Suffolk Construction), Rev. William P. Leahy, S.J. (President of Boston College), Sister Janet Eisner, SND (President of Emmanuel College), and other community leaders were involved in the initiative.

In the only direct reference to the Reporter's coverage, Saunders wrote: "Unfortunately the Dorchester Reporter mistakenly framed their report as a school-closing story."

Pastors from Dorchester and Mattapan met at Archdiocesan headquarters in Brighton last Friday to discuss their response.

In a letter included in some church bulletins and homilies at services this past Sunday, the pastors informed parishioners that "pastors and their principals" have been meeting as part of the 2010 Initiative for "the past eighteen months." The full text of that message appears on page 11 of this week's Reporter.

Fr. Von Euw said this week that he did not agree with the letter and did not circulate it to his Saint Ambrose parishioners. He said that he felt obliged to divulge the details of the developing schools plan last week because stakeholders, including school principals and parents, were unaware of key decisions being made about the futures of specific schools.

"The tone that our Cardinal has encouraged for the church community is transparency," Von Euw said this week. "Unfortunately, in this case, that seems to have manifested itself in a lack of honesty in the way they are reacting."

Von Euw also takes issue with implementing a regional plan in Dorchester, saying that the neighborhood's culture of Catholic parish life makes it unique from other urban neighborhoods.

"Dorchester is different than Brockton," Von Euw said. "You have a lot of emotions and passions and turf.

"We are not all in agreement on this," Von Euw said of the continuing discussions between pastors.

Donilon said that outreach to a wider group of stakeholders would begin in the next two weeks.

"I don't view it as a dispute. There's a lot of healthy discussion taking place on many levels," said Donilon. "Clearly, we need to slow the train down and regroup with our pastors."

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