Archdiocese breaks ground on Pope John Paul II Academy

The wheels of progress roll on at Dorchester's new Pope John Paul II Academy parochial school system. A new regional director has been chosen, a new pastor was appointed for St. Gregory's, and media photographers dodged dirt thrown by third graders on Columbia Road as they broke ground for the Columbia Campus' renovation and its new gymnasium and Cafeteria on Monday afternoon.

"The defense has been on the field too long, it's time the offense took the field," philanthropist Jack Connors told a packed model classroom at the Columbia Campus--formerly St. Margaret School--before the groundbreaking Monday. Connors chairs the 2010 Schools Initiative formed by the Archdiocese of Boston. "We believe we can be more than competitive, we believe we can be better. That's what this is all about."

The 2010 Initiative will take seven of Dorchester's Catholic K thru 8 parish-based schools and combine them into one system of five schools. Phase one of construction will include renovations to many of the schools over the summer and phase two will include building a new school to replace St. Mark School, and opening its doors by 2010. The Columbia Campus is scheduled to be completed in time for the school year this September.

Connors said the Campaign for Catholic Schools (CCS) has raised roughly $25 million for the effort so far, using "Jack's math." An Archdiocese of Boston press release gave a more conservative $17 million figure toward a goal of $68 million. Connors said he expected to raise $50 million by Labor Day.

To lead the five schools, the board of directors has chosen Mary L. Russo, formerly the principal of the Richard J Murphy School in Pope's Hill, to become regional director of Pope John Paul II Academy. Russo won numerous prestigious awards over the years, as has the Murphy, one of the standouts in the Boston Public Schools' system.

Three principals have also been chosen. Claire Sheridan from the Blessed Mother Teresa School will lead the Columbia Campus, Sr. Paula Kelly from thesoon-to-close St. Kevin School will lead the Lower Mills Campus, and Catherine Cameron from the St. Mary School in Quincy will lead the Neponset Campus.

The school system is nearing the archdiocese's goal of 1500 students, with 1370 already enrolled. When finished, the school system will have a capacity closer to 1700 students, said CCS president Kathleen Driscoll. She said waiting lists are already forming for spots in the third, fourth and fifth grades at Columbia Campus and for third grade at Neponset.

Meanwhile, the new pastor for St. Gregory's Church in Lower Mills was announced at Sunday Mass this week, a young priest by the name of Father Vincent Daley who currently serves at two parishes in Somerville.

The success of the Pope John Paul II Academy will be closely watched by other parishioners throughout the archdiocese. Along with Brockton's Trinity Catholic Academy, the new system will serve as a field model for parochial school transformations throughout the Greater Boston area.