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Spotlight Report

Families rally to save church school

$200,000 goal set for St. Augustine's

By Peter Demarco, Globe Correspondent, 6/23/2003

Supporters of St. Augustine's School in South Boston promise to raise as much as $200,000 this summer to ensure their 103-year-old neighborhood school, which closed abruptly this month, reopens in September.

Though Bishop Richard G. Lennon has yet to consent to the plan, which would breathe life into the 158-student elementary school for at least another year, the school's supporters are wasting no time getting their fund-raising drive in gear.

On Saturday night, as Lennon returned home from a bishops' conference in St. Louis, about a dozen school alumni, parents, and elected officials made plans to solicit local unions and businesses for donations, hold bake sales, and possibly sponsor a benefit concert. Within just two months, predicted state Representative Brian Wallace of South Boston, they could have all the money they need.

''In October of 2000, when 78 people were driven out of their homes by three fires, we put a committee together and raised over $400,000,'' he said. ''We raised $177,000 in one year when we started Pop Warner. This community has a history of coming together, especially in times of need. And this is a time of need.''

The school, located in South Boston's Lower End, whose population includes many low-income residents, closed on June 13, four days before the scheduled end of its school year. Church officials cited mounting debts, declining enrollment, and big-ticket building repairs as reasons for the closure, which was ultimately ordered by the church's pastor.

The archdiocese, mired in a financial crisis resulting partly from the clergy sexual abuse scandal, cut the school's subsidy this year by 15 percent. Four other Boston Catholic schools have also been forced to close this year.

The shuttering outraged St. Augustine's parents, who were informed of the decision in a letter sent home with their children. But it also triggered a groundswell of support for the generations-old school, which is in dire need of roofing, electrical, and boiler room repairs, among others.

''I live in the community. I grew up in the community. I just believe it's worth fighting for,'' said Tom Miller, whose son, Cameron, is a seventh-grader at the school.

Other parents praised the school for providing an afforable education ($2,600) or recalled how more than 1,000 alumni came back to celebrate its 100th anniversary three years ago.

''If we were told six months ago that the school needs this and the school needs that, we would have pulled together as we did now. That's not a problem,'' said parent Irene Rotundo, a member of the fund-raising committee. ''Give us a fair shot. Give us a chance. We'll do it for our children.''

About 300 supporters gathered in South Boston on Thursday night to voice their demand for the school to be reopened, and even threatened a Saturday morning march to the archdiocese's chancery in Brighton.

Instead, City Councilor James Kelly contacted the archdiocese, and received assurances that church officials would listen to the parish's concerns. St. Augustine's pastor, Monsignor Thomas J. McDonnell, meanwhile, wrote to Lennon asking him to consider reopening the school.

''I don't have the authority to reopen the school without permission from my superiors. It's up to them to tell me,'' he said yesterday.

The Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, spokesman for the archdiocese, said that Lennon returned home late Saturday from St. Louis, where he was attending the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, and had not yet read McDonnell's letter.

Lennon was also not aware of the proposed fund-raising campaign, he said.

''If Monsignor McDonnell wants to talk to him about the letter, he'll obviously review it with him,'' Coyne said. ''He'll obviously work with Monsignor McDonnell and the parish.''

McDonnell cautioned that the school still faces $900,000 in long-term repairs, as well as a declining enrollment because of fewer school-age children living in South Boston.

St. Augustine's supporters, though, say the repair figure is probably much lower, and point out that other Catholic schools, such as South Boston's St. Peter's and St. Bridget's schools, have responded to funding challenges and are flourishing.

''We're doing all we can to keep St. Augustine's open,'' Kelly said. ''We'll try to increase enrollment, analyze the financial situation, and raise money to make sure St. Augustine's is open not only the fall of this year, but many years after.''

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 6/23/2003.
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