(Copyright 2007 Dorchester Reporter)- The Archdiocese of Boston is considering a plan to consolidate the eight remaining parochial schools in Dorchester and Mattapan into four regional K-8 schools that would be located at the sites of existing Catholic schools in the neighborhoods. The plan, outlined this week by two Dorchester pastors with direct knowledge of the details, will be discussed this Friday at a meeting of archdiocesan officials and the pastors and principals of the existing parochial schools. The plan calls for the creation of regional schools at St. Ann's in Neponset, St. Gregory's in Lower Mills, St. Margaret's in Columbia-Savin Hill (which has been closed since 2004), and St. Peter's on Bowdoin Street. Four schools would be closed under the plan: St. Angela's in Mattapan, St. Brendan's in Cedar Grove, St. Mark's on Dorchester Avenue, and St. Kevin's in Uphams Corner. The new "regional" schools, which would likely be re-named, would be administered by a single "civil corporation" topped by a regional director and board of directors and would operate independently from the local parishes. All students currently enrolled at any of the parish schools would be guaranteed a seat in a regional school. However, the same guarantee would not extend to faculty and staff. Documents from a Feb. 2 meeting of Dorchester pastors obtained by the Reporter indicate that one step in the formation of the regional system would be to "terminate all employees in the current schools and after the appropriate interviewing and selection process, rehire in the regional system to fill budgeted positions." Details of the proposal to recast the Dorchester parochial- school system have surfaced just two weeks after the archdiocese announced that it would merge three Catholic elementary schools in Brockton into one regional school. Both proposals are part of the 2010 Initiative, an archdiocesan project launched in the spring of 2005 to re-evaluate urban Catholic education in Brockton, Dorchester, and Lowell. Jack Connors, a philanthropist and retired chairman of the advertising firm Hill, Holliday, is leading the effort, and two large consulting companies have been hired to help devise a plan for each urban community. A preliminary report prepared by the consultants confirms what many in Dorchester knew at least anecdotally: Catholic grade schools have been gradually weakened by declining enrollment and rising tuition over the last 20-30 years. Two-thirds of the 143 archdiocesan schools are located where just one third of the school-age population resides. And enrollment in the system's elementary schools has been declining at a rate of 4.5 percent a year as Catholic schools' market share has dropped from a high near 10 percent in the early 1990s to 6.2 percent. That system-wide data corroborates the story in Dorchester, from which legions of Catholics left for the suburbs in the second half of the last century. Some Catholic immigrants have replaced them - Cape Verdeans, Haitians, Vietnamese - but their numbers don't come close to matching the Catholic population of Dorchester in its heyday, when residents identified passionately with their parishes and their schools. As their numbers have declined, school tuition and maintenance costs have increased, and many working immigrant families have to struggle to give their children a Catholic education. Dorchester has already seen three Catholic grammar schools shuttered in recent years. St. Ambrose school in Fields Corner closed its doors in 2003. St. Margaret's school was closed in 2004 after the parish was suppressed in a diocesan reorganization that created a new parish, Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Just last summer, St. Matthew Grammar School on Stanton Street, which served a predominantly Haitian-American population, was closed as well. Several Dorchester pastors said this week that it was time to revamp the model of urban Catholic education in Boston. "Through the city of Boston and the surrounding areas we have closed each school as it has failed without any plans for how to cope with that, and that's no good. We need a plan," said Father Paul Soper, pastor of Blessed Mother Teresa parish. "We're trying to put together some sort of plan to save what we have left." Father Daniel J. Finn, pastor of St. Mark's and administrator of St. Peter's, said that the proposed consolidation would also allow the schools to concentrate on improving education and service to their students. "The primary purpose here is Catholic formation, teaching Catholic practice, and this will allow us to pursue that while offering more in curriculum, stabilizing tuition, and stabilizing our funding," he said. But at least one pastor is speaking out against a process that he says has already gone too far without input from school administrators and parents. "We [pastors] have no say, and parents haven't been involved in it. It's not going to go down well because no one has been involved," said Father Vincent Von Euw, pastor at St. Ambrose, which no longer runs a parish school. "I am questioning the reason why we aren't involved in choosing or at least recommending [the sites]. Von Euw expressed frustration, in particular, at the choice of Saint Peter's School on Bowdoin Street as one of the regional school sites. Von Euw said that Saint Kevin's, located on Columbia Road in Uphams Corner, would be a more visible, safer alternative. "They're ready to go with this. Everything has been decided and they want our signature," Von Euw told the Reporter. "I protested it. Why should I be forced to sign off on a location I'm not in agreement with? I personally see it as a very poor decision to make St. Peter's a regional school. They're not going to get the students to go there." Several Dorchester pastors stressed this week that at this preliminary stage no final decisions have been made on practical matters such as how students would be transported to the regional schools, what would be done with school buildings not incorporated into the new system, or even when the new schools might open. It seems clear that the changes will not be implemented in time for the fall of this year, but opening under the new system in the fall of 2008 remains a viable option. Elected officials and parish council members had only limited knowledge of the process this week. Some said that they saw the move toward regional schools as an economic necessity, while others viewed the loss of parish-oriented schools as a major blow to their neighborhood's character.
"This is very tragic news as far as I'm concerned," said City Council President Maureen Feeney, who represents Dorchester's district three and who sent her two children to St. Brendan's, a parish school with a particularly proud and vibrant tradition. "Catholic schools have been jewels in our community and in many ways they defined the neighborhood of Dorchester. "We have not been advised as to what the plans are," she said. "As usual we will probably be notified by media, because that seems to be the way things operate. I hope the archdiocese appreciates how important these schools are to our community. I think it's going to be a very challenging time for families who have chosen Catholic education." City Councillor Michael Flaherty called on the Archdiocese of Boston to grant the city "right of first refusal" on schools, churches, convents, or parishes they intend to close, a designation that would grant the city the right to incorporate such schools into the public system or re-develop church properties for uses like affordable housing or substance abuse clinics. "The Archdiocese ought to be ashamed of itself. This is unconscionable," said Flaherty. "With everything that has happened and everything that the church is supposed to stand for I just don't know how they could present a preliminary plan like this." Terrence Donilon, a spokesman for the Archdiocese, said Wednesday that the proposal was too premature to be seen as a developed plan, and acknowledged a need for greater clarity in the project. "We obviously need to do a better job on communication on our end," said Donilon. "We're just barely beginning the process. What people are going to be hearing today could be very different three months down the road. To have formed opinions circulating is something we have to deal with on our end." Mary Hogan, a life-long parishioner of St. William's parish, which has merged with St. Margaret's to form Blessed Mother Teresa, where she is now a parish council member, said the 2010 initiative has become a part of the dialogue at parish council meetings only in the broadest of terms. "There are just so many imponderables that while people may see the logic or the need for some kind of consolidation, where and on what basis that's going to be done is still unknown," she said. Hogan added that she hoped the archdiocese would pursue reform with more tact than the process by which they closed St. William's parish, still seen as top-heavy and even misleading by many longtime parishioners. "One can appreciate the overall goals and still wonder how this is going to be implemented, hopefully with more clarity and charity than in previous reconfigurations."