The Archdiocese of Philadelphia said it has made its final decisions regarding the closings and consolidations of schools across the city, but community members in Pennsport and Whitman have not yet backed down.
More than 1,000 parents, teachers and students, alumni and neighbors came together at Third and McKean streets Feb. 23 to protest against the closing of two community schools.
The Blue Ribbon Commission announced the closing and combining of several schools within the area, due to declining enrollment and the increased presence of charter schools, Jan. 6. Included on the list were Our Lady of Mount Carmel, 2329 S. Third St., and Sacred Heart of Jesus, 1329 E. Moyamensing Ave. Both schools were originally set to head to a regional site with three other learning institutions at the former Stella Maris School, 814 Bigler St., but upon appeals, the archdiocese deemed Feb. 17 they would merge with Epiphany of Our Lord at its 1248 Jackson St. site.
Each announcement left the community devastated.
“They don’t seem to understand that it’s more than just a school. It’s a community of parishioners, generations of family,” Marcie Figueroa, a Mount Carmel parent and resident of the 2500 block of South Third Street, said.
Figueroa, a proud Mount Carmel graduate, still sees the importance of the two schools standing together.
“It’s a neighborhood. It’s a community,” she said.
As of March 1, an estimated $50,000 in donations have been collected to keep the schools open. Both schools also have filed an appeal against canon law, which sets the regulations made by or adopted by ecclesiastical authority.
However, all decisions and appeals have been reviewed and made final as of the Feb. 17 announcement.
“No additional appeal meetings have been or will be conducted,” the archdiocese said in a March 1 statement.
Meanwhile, the Epiphany regional site’s implementation team also has continued to plan for the merger as it is polling families attending each of the three merging schools to chose a name for the regional location among Guardian Angels, Holy Trinity, Our Lady of Hope, Our Lady of the Trinity or Our Lady of the Rosary, according to a Feb. 24 bulletin. While the faculty has not yet been hired, the team unanimously selected current Epiphany Principal Patricia Cody as its leader.
“Each of our three schools have special strengths and we will combine these strengths to create the finest school for our children,” the bulletin read. “The new model of regional schools in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia will ensure a long future for affordable and sustainable Catholic education in our area. With God on our side throughout this process, we truly believe that we can create the best school in South Philadelphia.”
The protest was a symbol of the neighborhoods coming together as its inhabitants came to fight against the archdiocese’s decision.
1st District City Councilman Mark Squilla, a Mount Carmel graduate and resident of Front Street and Snyder Avenue, made an appearance to encourage the attendees to stick together as a community. It was area residents’ and parents’ speeches that had the greatest impact on the crowd that night.
“Our neighborhood is made up of neat little rowhomes lined up like books on a shelf with two bookends, one is Sacred Heart of Jesus and the other Our Lady of Mount Carmel,” Kenneth Dougherty said to the crowd. “With the loss of one bookend, we can lean the books against the other and still remain standing, but without the other bookend the books will most certainly fall.”
Dougherty, a parent of two students at Sacred Heart, believes that the unity and support behind the Catholic schools in the neighborhood is necessary in saving them as well as the church.
“Catholic schools raise new generations of Catholics, and if the schools go, then the churches are next,” he said.
While the archdiocese accepted appeals from the schools, staff and faculty members from both Mount Carmel and Sacred Heart claim that they were not given enough time to propose their alternative.
The two other schools originally set to merge at the former Stella Maris School, St. Richard, 1826 Pollock St., and Holy Spirit, 1845 Hartranft St., appealed and won, forming a regional school at St. Richard, but Mount Carmel and Sacred Heart were blindsided by their pleadings, Joseph Nelson, whose family has ties to both Mount Carmel and Sacred Heart, said.
“It was rushed,” Nelson said of the appeal meeting. “We never got the chance to speak, with interjections and all. We had a plan.
“The best solution, we thought, would be to merge Sacred Heart and Mount Carmel. What Mount Carmel lacks in enrollment, Sacred Heart has.”
Their plan called for Sacred Heart to be sold, and for the members of that school and parish to move to Mount Carmel.
Mount Carmel currently has 45 percent of its enrollment capacity filled and has a parish surplus of $324,989 while Sacred Heart of Jesus has 76 percent enrollment capacity and a deficit of $295,355, according to the Blue Ribbon Commission Report. The merger would bring enrollment to about 300 students, and would remove the debt from Sacred Heart.
Parents and community members argued in the appeal that it was not about the educational facilities anymore.
“It’s not just a school, its a neighborhood, and we need to save it,” Nelson said. “People do care and we need to show the archdiocese that.”
The archdiocese does not have a date as to when information regarding when the regional school will be finalized, but Nelson said, March 25 is the tentative date that parents can begin to register their children for Catholic schools. While he does not discourage anyone from registering at the regional facility, he wants it to be known that there is still a fight occurring for these schools.
“The archdiocese doesn’t have faith in the community, but if they can give us two years, we can prove them wrong,” Nelson said.
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