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Spotlight Report

Church to close several schools

Msgr. Ryan High said to be on list

By Michael Paulson and Anand Vaishnav, Globe Staff, 1/29/2003

The Archdiocese of Boston is planning to close several schools this year, including one of the last all-girl Catholic high schools in the city, according to church and school officials.

A church spokeswoman yesterday declined to identify the number or names of the schools, saying the church wants to wait to notify parents and teachers. But a group in Dorchester yesterday said that one school is Monsignor Ryan Memorial High, a girls school founded in 1918.

Enrollment at some Catholic schools has been falling, and many schools, especially in low-income neighborhoods, are having financial trouble as the archdiocese, facing financial woes of its own, cuts back on assistance to low-income parishes. A major source of financial assistance to Catholic schools in low-income neighborhoods, the Catholic Schools Foundation Inc., has also announced new rules that would cut off scholarship money for some small schools starting this fall.

The archdiocese and local parishes have shut other schools in recent years, but it appears that some of the new closings are at least partly attributable to a financial squeeze exacerbated by the clergy sexual abuse scandal. The crisis has caused some donors to stop giving to the church.

''There has been a lot of pressure on the schools for several years, and especially on parishes in the inner city that are expensive to operate and need constant repair, and the poorer the parish, the more unable the parish is to sustain its buildings,'' said Sister Esther Plefka, a graduate of Monsignor Ryan Memorial and a member of the religious order Sisters of Charity, which started the school. Asked about the role of the clergy sex abuse crisis in the school closings, Plefka said, ''I would not say there is a direct cause and effect relationship, but it complicates the picture financially if the diocese is looking at bankruptcy.''

Supporters of the Dorchester school, organized as the Monsignor Ryan Memorial High School Advisory Committee, say they will attempt to raise about $1 million to start a new, independent Catholic girls high school in Dorchester, Roxbury, or South Boston.

In a statement yesterday, the group linked its plight to the scandal. ''The Catholic Church is in crisis,'' it said. ''Stories of secrecy, scandal, and mismanagement abound. But amidst all of this chaos, a lesser-known tragedy is unfolding - the unraveling of the Catholic education system.''

Archdiocesan spokeswoman Donna M. Morrissey would not comment on any school closings. ''There are not announcements at this point in regards to any changes,'' she said. ''It would be inappropriate to discuss any changes before an announcement is made and the information is relayed to a school community.''

The group said the school was notified at the end of the last school year that it would lose its subsidy from the archdiocese, which was funneled through the parish in which the school is located, St. Margaret's. The archdiocese is hoping to sell the building in which the school is located, at the intersection of Boston and Mayhew streets, to the South Boston Harbor Academy Charter School. The proceeds from the sale would allow the parish to operate its kindergarten to eighth-grade grammar school without any subsidies from the archdiocese, church officials said. Monsignor Ryan now has about 140 students in grades 9 through 12.

The Rev. Nicholas C. Ciccone Jr., pastor of St. Margaret's, said he would be informing faculty, students, and their families of the school's fate on Thursday. ''The parishioners of St. Margaret's, as well as the alumnae of Monsignor Ryan Memorial High School, are thankful for the many religious women and lay faculty and staff that have educated with dignity, grace, and distinction over 3,500 young women since 1918,'' he said.

Linda Garofalo, a 1970 graduate of the school who sits on its advisory committee, said the school has had no luck in trying to set up meetings with Archdiocesan Superintendent Kathleen Carr or with Bishop Richard G. Lennon, who was appointed to administer the archdiocese last month after Cardinal Bernard F. Law resigned.

''I feel strongly that the archdiocese has backed down on this,'' said Garofalo, of Scituate. ''It's just unfortunate that these girls are being the victims for what has transpired.''

The only remaining girls high school in Boston is Mount St. Joseph Academy in Brighton, sponsored by the Sisters of St. Joseph. There is also a girls middle school, the Mother Caroline Academy in Dorchester, run by the School Sisters of Notre Dame. A number of other Catholic girls schools have closed over the last several decades, including Cardinal Cushing High School in South Boston, St. Gregory's High School in Dorchester, St. Clare's High School in Roslindale, and St. Patrick's High School in Roxbury.

''Because we firmly believe that there is a need and a place for single-sex education in our society, we are dedicated to providing these girls with a safe and stable learning environment,'' the members of the Monsignor Ryan Advisory Committee said.

Janine Bempechat, a scholar who has studied achievement among students in Boston's Catholic schools since 1990, said the news of more closings surprises her because, she said, enrollments in parochial schools have been rising nationally. She said she suspects that the dropoff in donations stemming from the yearlong sex-abuse scandal has hurt parochial schools financially.

''What we know nationally is that Catholic schools are doing an excellent job with the poorest kids, so to me it's a real shame,'' said Bempechat, a researcher at Brown University's Center for the Study of Human Development. ''There aren't a whole lot of choices for low-income students.''

Stephen Kurkjian of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 1/29/2003.
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