June 18, 2008
St. Peter's School had their last day of school ever last Friday, ending 110 years of Catholic education on Bowdoin Street.
At the last graduation ceremony Thursday night, some parents said they hadn't found new schools for their children yet, others confirmed enrollment in the new Pope John Paul II Academy, but all lamented the decision to close the school, a bright spot in a poor neighborhood racked with gang violence and a high concentration of foreclosures.
"It's exciting, but it's hard to look at all your friends knowing you can't come back and see them. It's hard to see people cry around you too, because they know they're leaving," said Sheena Jeune, an eighth-grade graduate. "That's the most valuable parts that you got here, you get love and care."
Former national field director for President Bill Clinton and St. Peter's graduate Michael Whouley returned to his alma mater to keynote the event, recounting to the children how he once made a habit of watching planes taking off from Logan airport while laying on his back in Ronan Park, wishing he could be in one, and how he much later pointed out the park's lights to Clinton while flying over the parish in Air Force One.
"You are the last graduating class of St. Peter's and that's a special gift you will have for the rest of your life," Whouley told them.
The close relationships between teachers and students here were evident, when students chanted assistant principal Mark Olson's name "Ol-son! Ol-son! Ol-son!," when a graduate gave tearful goodbye speech to teacher Charlie MacLaughlin, and particularly at the end of the night, when the entire school sang together. Parents clapped along and Francis Depina, a member of the St. Peter's basketball team, did an impromptu gymnastic floor routine in front of the stage.
But afterward, Whouley confided that he wished he had known about the school's closure sooner, a number of the younger children were crying, and much of the parent-teacher talk was reviewing the facts of the closure and what they would be doing next year.
"These kids are remarkable," said MacLaughlin, who taught literature and three or four other topics at the school. "Those seventh graders read 22 classics this year. I wanted to have them so bad next year because, you know, you build with them. But they'll do fine. Most of them will go over to St. Margaret's."
MacLaughlin himself is considering retirement. Olson is still job-hunting, having come to St. Peter's only a year ago after his former employer--St. Anthony's in New Bedford--suffered a similar fate.
"I think the only thing here is they closed the two poorest schools they should have kept one of them open," Olson said. He hopes that St. Peter's students will be able to afford the new options open to them at Pope John Paul, but is skeptical. "It hinges on how much financial aid they're going to give them."
St. Peter's lies in the poorest neighborhood of the seven Catholic schools affected by the reorganization in Dorchester, according to 2000 Census household income data, and it had the highest number of subsidized students as well as the cheapest tuition, according to Archdiocese data released last year. St. Kevin's in Uphams Corner and Blessed Mother Teresa school in Savin Hill had similar situations.
The Archdiocese is raising over $50 million--largely through donations from advertising millionaire Jack Connors and at-cost construction from Suffolk Construction company--to consolidate seven schools onto five campuses and improve educational offerings, a new system called collectively Pope John Paul II Academy.
Principal Mary Lou Amrhein, who never expected to join Pope John Paul after speaking out against St. Peter's closure last year, said she was frustrated both with the decision to close St. Peter's and the lack of a stronger public outcry against it.
"It's truly deafening," she said in a phone interview last week. "The silence is totally incredible."