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School’s prayer

A financial statement distributed by the pastor of Annunciation BVM Church to parishioners indicates that the church will be broke by next fall.

The news raises questions about the future of the church at 1501 S. 10th St. and its grade school at 1148 Wharton St.

For some, it also substantiates a rumor that the Citizens Alliance for Better Neighborhoods — a nonprofit run from state Sen. Vince Fumo’s South Philly office — wants to buy the school building and use it to open a charter school.

The Rev. Gary Pacitti, who has been Annunciation’s pastor for five months, said he has told parishioners that Annunciation is in "pretty serious financial trouble." Information distributed in a church bulletin indicates the parish is more than $200,000 in the red.

"Is the parish in danger of closing? No," Pacitti said. "Is the school in danger? Yeah. We’re fighting hard, though."

Annunciation School has 166 students enrolled in grades pre-K through eight. Enrollment is down 20 students from last year, the pastor said.

Of the eight remaining parishes in the archdiocese’s Cluster 24 Planning Commission, Annunciation is one of four that still has a parish grade school. The last to close was St. Paul School, 916 Christian St., in 1999. The Christopher Columbus Charter School now occupies its building.

Last week, Ken Snyder, spokesperson for Citizens Alliance — which owns Columbus’ properties — told the Review his organization plans to expand its charter school endeavors, but declined to elaborate.

The comment stirred up a rumor circulating for several months that Fumo, under the auspices of Citizens Alliance, has expressed interest in purchasing the Annunciation building, should the school close. The newly acquired property reportedly would be used for a charter high school affiliated with the Columbus Charter School.

Snyder was vague when asked this week if the rumors about Citizens Alliance and Annunciation were true.

The nonprofit is "interested in expanding on our success in the charter school area," he said, adding, "We have no specific plans right now, except a desire to continue the good work we have done with regards to the charter schools."

Fumo and City Councilman Frank DiCicco — then a Fumo aide — founded Citizens Alliance in the early 1990s. The organization purchased the St. Paul’s building after the school closed and leases the property to the Columbus Charter. The nonprofit also built and owns the school’s building at 13th and Wharton streets.

Citizens Alliance has $25 million in assets and last year received an $11-million cash donation from an anonymous benefactor.

Pacitti said he has heard the rumors about the interest in Annunciation’s building from parishioners, but said no one from Fumo’s office or the Citizens Alliance has contacted him personally.

Monsignor John T. Conway, the archdiocese’s vicar for Philadelphia South, said it is against church policy for church officials to discuss selling any archdiocesan property with a potential buyer while it is still in use.

"So wherever that is coming from, that is absolutely, positively untrue," Conway said. "No building would be offered to anybody, so that’s just not true."

According to the Board of Revision of Taxes, the Annunciation School building has an assessed market value of $1.9 million. BRT market values are typically a conservative estimate of a property’s worth — usually about 75-80 percent of what it would fetch at sale.

Parishioners learned about the money problems in October through a copy of Annunciation’s annual financial report distributed in the weekly bulletin.

The information showed that between July 2002 and June 2003, the church’s income from collections, school tuition and other sources was $727,211. Annunciation’s expenditures for the same time totaled $945,782.

To make ends meet, Annunciation has made withdrawals from a parish trust account. The church has supplemented its income with money from trust each year since at least 1996.

Last year it withdrew the most — $244,000. That left a balance of $249,331. In 1996, the trust had a year-end balance of $977,873.

Pacitti, who had previously been stationed at two suburban churches in the archdiocese — both of which were growing at a rate of 80-100 families per year — said Annunciation has been hurt by families leaving the city.

There are still 1,500 families in the parish, he said, but many of those now include a single widow or widower.

"It has been a long, slow process of declining parishioners year after year," the pastor said. "Like many parishes down here, we do a lot more funerals [120 in the last year], and very few baptisms and weddings."

Annunciation will try to combat that decline.

The school has hired a new principal and the church will begin a marketing campaign to attract more students. Annunciation School also has installed new computer technology and initiated science and language programs, aided by grants from the city and private donors.

The church also is raffling off a car donated by a local dealership, which is expected to raise $100,000 to be split among several churches selling chances. The drawing will take place in February.

Parishioners have rallied around Annunciation since its financial problems became public. Many have offered their time to help make repairs to the church. So far, Pacitti has been impressed by his parishioners’ dedication to their church, which will celebrate its 143rd anniversary this Christmas.

"There is a tremendous sense of connection and loyalty to the parish," Pacitti said. "That is more so than it was in the suburban parishes. That is a beautiful thing. I am moved by that."

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