Dorchester parishes reach compromise on school location

After learning that their parishes would be suppressed to form one new parish, parishioners at St. William’s and St. Margaret’s in Dorchester awaited the second blow — which of their two school buildings would close and which would remain open to house the new school. Now, weeks after they have learned the fate of their schools and despite the tension and anxieties that still exist, their hopes are towards the future.

When the reconfiguration decision was announced in late May, the next thought in many people’s minds was “What about the parish schools?” It was enough to have one loss, but to have two would have been almost unbearable for many parishioners at St. William and St. Margaret parishes.

Simply dealing with the closure of their churches had caused enough pain, said Father Nicholas Ciccone, pastor of St. Margaret Parish, which is located less than a half mile from St. William Parish.

“While a ‘merger’ with St. William’s is a natural one given the proximity of both churches to each other, it has not made it easier, particularly since no other churches were affected in Dorchester,” he said. “While there is sadness in the closing of two well established parishes, combining the resources of both will make for a vibrant, alive and exciting place to worship.”

Still despite the grief caused by the parish merger, it was necessary to decide which of the school buildings would house the new school. Many had expected St. Margaret School building to remain open since St. Margaret Parish building had been chosen as the site of the new parish.

However, many people including St. William School graduate Barney Carney, whose father, aunts, uncles, eight sisters and four children attended the school, were prepared to make the case for keeping their beloved school building open as the site of the new school.

Carney, together with other concerned parents formed an adhoc group called the Committee to Save the Site of St. William School. They called parents, political figures, members of the Central Committee for Reconfiguration and anyone else they thought could help their cause.

They compiled statistics that supported their opinion that the St. William School building should house new school. According to Carney, they found that St. William was in a better location, had a larger enrollment, lower tuition, better salaries and benefits for staff, and more space for activities such as recess, gym and all-school meetings.

In early June, after weeks of hard work, they presented their findings and thoughts to Father Christopher Hickey, pastor of St. William Parish.

On June 12, days after submitting their report, in closed-door meeting between the pastors, moderator of the curia Bishop Richard G. Lennon and archdiocesan Superintendent of Schools Sister Kathleen Carr, CSJ, and other school officials, it was decided that St. William  would be the site of the new school.

“I fought for St. William’s because I thought it was the best choice of the two schools,” Carney said. “It makes a lot of sense to have our school at one end of territorial parish and the worship site at the other end of the territorial parish.”

Despite the distance between the new parish and the new school — about three-quarters of a mile — Father Hickey felt that choosing to have the new school at the former St. William School was a just compromise.

“The neighborhood was anxious because we would have lost both our worship site and our school site so the neighborhood would have changed dramatically,” he continued. “Having kept the school, we kept half of the picture so I think that allayed a lot of the anxiety.”

“Each community receives something,” he continued. “It’s a win-win in my eyes.”

While the congregation of St. Margaret’s may not agree whole-heartedly, many seem willing to make the new arrangement work.

“We are still struggling to understand the reasons for this decision, particularly in establishing a new school at a different geographic location from the new parish,” Father Ciccone said. “We are committed to making this change work, however, and ultimately the most important aspect of this is the people, not buildings and real estate.”

This hopeful attitude was a major characteristic of the meeting to decide which school should reopen as the new school, said Father Hickey.

 “Everyone was open to whatever happened,” he said. “Everyone was looking out for best interest of the kids, trying to bring the kids together in a cooperative spirit, and the best of the neighborhood at heart.”

While parents and parishioners are ready for some much needed stability, there are still many uncertainties.

“I’m happy that the school is open. It was the only right thing to do,” Carney said. “I want to keep positive,” but “there is an arrogant view about how decisions will be made about the school and parent input needs to be considered.”

“I’m extremely cautious about whether it will remain open,” he continued citing what he described as the tendency for many Catholic schools, namely the former St. Margaret School, to raise tuition year after year, which he said threatens enrollment.

“The new school could close in the next five years unless attitudinal changes are made,” in terms of tuition policies and how issues are decided, he stated.

Father Hickey is hopeful that the staff of both former schools can be retained to work in the new school, but “there is no guarantee,” he said. He is also optimistic that the new school, which will take the name of the new parish, will enroll over 300 students. The former St. William School had approximately 200 students, while the former St. Margaret’s had approximately 30 fewer students.

There has also been no word on who will be pastor of the new parish, which is tentatively set to be established sometime in September, he said.

Until then, the people of St. William and St. Margaret parishes will continue to look toward the future of their new parish and school.

“St. William’s people are very happy about the site of the new school and the St. Margaret people are understandably cautiously optimistic,” said Father Hickey, “but I get the impression everyone wants to make a go of it.”