Pope JPII school on St. Mark's site is closing in June

By 
Sue Asci, Special to the Reporter
Jan. 28, 2010

St Marks

Dorchester’s elected officials are requesting a meeting with the archdiocese of Boston to discuss the planned closing in June of the Dorchester Central campus of Pope John Paul II Academy – known to most residents as St. Mark’s School – and to explore the possibility of alternatives to the move.

The church is working on setting up the meeting, said archdiocesan spokesman Terrence Donilon.

In a statement last week, academy officials described the school closure as a “consolidation.” Said the Rev. William Joy, chair of the academy’s board of trustees: “The economic recession has had a significant impact on our enrollment and the pace of the fundraising effort.”

The St. Mark's site, which is sandwiched between Dorchester Avenue and Samoset Street behind the parish church, was chosen for closure because it had the lowest enrollment of any academy school, at 52 percent of its capacity, Donilon said, 200 students out of a capacity of 380.

“The school had to be rebuilt. It was going to cost between $13 million and $15 million. And the pace of fundraising has slowed,” he added.

The original concept for the academy was based on four campuses, but “we went to five based on information from the pastors at the time,” 
Donilon said.

The archdiocese also did its own analysis at the time as part of its 2010 Initiative.

“But no one could predict the recession that we are going through now,” he said. “And that’s had an impact. We are committed to staying long term to make sure the program thrives and prospers in Dorchester and Mattapan.”

Several elected officials said they were informed about the announcement just hours before the archdiocese held a meeting with parents at the school. “We do the best we can [in terms of communications],” Donilon said. “I’m sure they can appreciate we have an obligation to talk to teachers and staff. They were asked to come to a meeting last Thursday [with parents] and were briefed on it. This is never easy.”

“We are trying to find out if there is any opportunity to discuss this,” said Boston City Councilor Maureen Feeney. “People have worked hard to keep that school moving forward and chose to keep their children there. I think most people were desperately surprised. It’s sad, unsettling, and very disappointing.”

Feeney said she was unaware about plans to close the school until two hours prior to the meeting when she received a telephone call.
State Representative Martin Walsh said the same went for him. “The closure of the school is a loss for the neighborhood, he said. “It’s one parish that really exemplifies what Dorchester is all about in terms of diversity. There are people there from all nationalities and backgrounds. It’s an extremely close-knit community. It’s so much more personal than a school closing. It’s like the loss of a family member.”

The former St. Mark’s Grammar School, a Grades 1-8 bulwark of the parish since it was built in 1923 and staffed by the Sisters of Notre Dame, had been serving students in K-8 grades when it was transformed into the central campus of the Pope John Paul II Academy in September 2008.

In addition to identifying alternatives to closing the school, Feeney said more information is needed about future plans for the site. “Are we going to have another parcel that the church is going to hold onto or sell off. This is not an easy pill to swallow,” she said.

It’s too early to talk about the future of the site, said Donilon.
Feeney said the officials and community members attended many meetings when plans were discussed to turn the grammar school into the central campus for the Pope John Paul II Academy.

“People believed their neighborhood school would be saved,” she said.
“There was a commitment made to the community that this would be the central campus for the Pope John Paul II Academy,” Walsh said. “A lot of people may view this as the archdiocese turning their back on their commitment.”

Donilon said the Archdiocese is committed to Catholic education in the neighborhood. “I appreciate and respect their opinion, but we have infused about $50 million in the local community toward our goal of $70 million – that’s a pretty significant commitment,” Donilon said. ‘I think clearly we have commitment.”

The academy is the largest Catholic elementary school in the Archdiocese with 1,300 students.

Turning it back into a parish school will not happen, Donilon said. Moving away from that model of parish school has been successful throughout the city. “We changed the governance for a reason,” Donilon said.

In early February, student visiting days will be held by the academy so students and parents can look at the other campuses and consider those for future attendance.