The Inside Story of the Closing of St. Paul School in Wellesley, MA: Part 1

July 27, 2015

NOTE: This post was updated at 10:15pm ET on July 27.

BCI is sad to report to you that St. Paul Catholic School in Wellesley is closing effective this September.  The announcement is somewhat deceptive as to the reason for the closure:

For 60 years, St. Paul School faculty, staff and administrators have worked in partnership with parents to build a faith-filled Catholic school experience for students in PreK through Grade 8.

Over the past several years, St. Paul School has faced a steady decline in enrollment. An attempt to secure solid commitments from parents for the upcoming school year was not sufficient.

This suggests, erroneously, that the biggest problem was insufficient commitment from parents for the upcoming school year and reveals nothing of the mismanagement that led to this place. Several readers had recently reminded us about a question we raised about the future of St. Paul School in Wellesley in a response to a reader back in June of 2013, and we did not have the chance to blog about the latest problems. Because the Boston Archdiocese and local parish are telling only a little bit of the story, in this post and our next post tomorrow, we will give you the rest of the story.

As BCI noted in this June 2013 post and comments, previous pastor Fr. Richard Fitzgerald left with little advance notice and was transferred to another parish.  We were told in May by a source, “there has been nothing but turmoil within the school since Father Fitzgerald left” and that the pastor who replaced Fr. Fitzgerald, Fr. Thomas Rafferty had literally “decimated the school.” The enrollment went from approximately 165 in 2012 to about 97 in 2015 and it continued to plummet.  The story is sad and unbelievable but true.  Here is what we have been told:

“To take a parochial school that was consistently ranked among the 5 highest performing schools academically in the Archdiocese, artistically (for 3 years running a student from the school won the Cardinal’s Christmas card design contest) and nationally (as being the only parochial school in the nation to produce a MacArthur Scholar –the Genius Award) as well as many other social achievements for those in need, and destroy it might be worth a look see especially in light of the evangelization push in the diocese. Evangelization is the passing on the faith and SPS did that magnificently.”

“The story begins in the late winter of 2012, when the long serving principal (17 years) suddenly resigned to accept another principal position within the Archdiocese. The former principal was very well connected at the Pastoral Center in Braintree.  This resignation was a shock to the school community.  A search for a replacement was immediately undertaken under the auspices of the Catholic School office headed by Sheila Kukstis, who was then the Assistant Superintendent to the then-Superintendent Mary Grassa O’Neil.  There was a short list of candidates presented to the committee–a committee, composed of faculty, parent, parish member and pastor.  Among the list of “light weights” was the woman who was selected.  She did not have the required basic tickets for the position which the other candidates did.  She had only been a guidance counselor at her school,(St. Francis in Braintree with the pastor being Fr. Sepe) and headed up the after-school program.  She was not certified nor did she have the leadership courses required to be certified.  In addition, she was 7 months pregnant.  She was hired anyway and given a strong recommendation by Fr, Sepe who was a classmate of Fr. Fitzgerald (the then-pastor at St. Paul). She started July 1, and was in the building through July 17. She only took two weeks maternity leave.”  BCI conveyed the situation of the principal not being the most qualified for the job in this post and comment to the post.

“The first major crisis occurred when a same-sex couple applied for admission of their child to the school.  St. Paul School enrolled the child of the lesbian couple, and the “two mommies” were introduced to the school body at First Friday Mass and welcome coffee for prospective parents in February of 2013, where they happily presented themselves for, and received, Holy Communion.The couple was introduced as a same-sex couple to ensure that the family would be socially accepted. This caused a major issue among many of the “orthodox parents” (Note BCIs description of St. Paul vs. St. John’s  noted in post of June, 2013).  This resulted in a mass exodus of long time families from St. Paul.  At the end of the school year, as BCI  reported, Father Fitzgerald (who was a strong supporter of the school, as was his predecessor Mgsr. Lind, who was then in residence in the rector) was suddenly transferred to St. Colombkille in Brighton.

The school opened in September 2013 with an enrollment of approximately 125 students (Sept. 2012 enrollment was approximately 165) and the soon-to-be announced pregnancy of the principal.  The new pastor, Father Tom Rafferty, did not come to opening day prayer service (which was well noted by the parent community). The parent community was concerned that the school was on the downslide and they wanted to be assured that Fr. Rafferty would reaffirm the support of the school that had always been evident from the pastor.  A group of parents met with him and offered to work long and hard to increase enrollment by marketing the school, get his assurance that he would support their efforts, and also support the Pre-K to 8 configuration of the school (meaning that the middle school would continue as part of SPS). They received this assurance on more than one occasion. The group met over a 4 month period, did an incredible amount of marketing, website updating, holding open houses etc. to support the school.  This resulted in an increase in enrollment of six students during the school year.  However, as this was going on, Father Rafferty was meeting with Mary Moran (RCAB Interim Superintendent) and James Walsh (RCAB Assistant Superintendent for Finance).These meetings resulted in a serious study as to whether the school would continue, and Ms Moran and Mr. Walsh concluded that the school was a financial burden to the parish. If it continued, it should be a PreK 6 school (in the model of St. John the Evangelist School).

Parents attempted to meet with Fr. Rafferty to have him assure them that SPS would continue.  He refused to meet with them and would not give them assurances of the school’s continuing (unlike his previous statements).  The principal during this time was seen as ineffective and leadership was non-existent. (The parents had contacted the Catholic School Foundation to see if they could help.  A meeting occurred with a large group of parents and a representative of the Foundation to which the principal was invited.  The principal was only invited to the introduction of the meeting and had a prior commitment, but with the principal having left early, many of the parents were left dumbfounded and without guidance on how to proceed with the Foundation).  The school community was in turmoil.  In February 2014, a group of parents met at the Wellesley Library trying to save the school.  (BCI is told that faculty members, who were very concerned about the future, were instructed not to attend or to take any part in this under the unspoken threat of losing their positions).  This parent meeting was precipitated by the fact that the pastor’s confidential statement delivered to the newly constituted School Board (made up of 90% of parents), at their first meeting, that the middle school would be closed. This statement got out and there was revolt, since, in previous meetings with the parents, he had intimated that he would support the school. At the Board meeting, Fr. presented three options for consideration, one of which was closing the middle school. It was this option that he asked them to seriously consider to keep the school financially viable.

The school year continued.  Father Rafferty met with 5th and 6th grade parents and still did not give the assurances the parents needed—namely, a continuation of grades 7 and 8 at St. Paul. The result was that 14 out of 16 sixth grade families did not reenroll. (Other grades experienced similar decreases in enrollment for the 2014-2015 school year).  This resulted in an opening of the school with about 92 students.  The principal went out on maternity leave and was replaced by an interim principal.  The plan was then announced to decrease faculty, combine 7th and 8th grade, and eliminate the library. This was left to the interim principal to implement. As the part of decision to close the library the collection of resources were first made available for faculty to take what they wanted for their classrooms and the rest (about 70%) was taken to the Wellesley Town dump and disposed of in the dumpsters there at the Leave and Take.  No other schools (inner city or suburban) were contacted to take the remaining part of the extensive library collection.

The school opened in September 2014 with (as noted before) an enrollment of about 92 students.  The parents continued to be concerned about the destiny of the school.  A long time parent introduced an individual who had experience in school marketing to the principal, and the principal decided to enlist her help. The individual and the principal worked closely together on initiatives throughout the yearThis individual worked pro-bono on a major professional marketing plan and campaign which seemed to generate a interest in the school.  A survey was done to determine the needs and desires of the community.  During this time (former interim Superintendent) Mary Moran and Assistant Superintendent Martha McCook became involved.  They did a six week study of the feasibility of SPS and met, along with Superintendent Kathy Mears, twice with the parents of the school.  There was no commitment made at any of these meetings.

As all of this was occurring, the two parishes (St. Paul and St John) went into collaboration.  Father Rafferty was not appointed pastor.  The priest who was appointed was Father Sepe (above).  In addition, the school celebrated its 60th anniversary and the school community raised $60,000 for its annual fund as an indication of the community’s support of the school. (The amount currently stands at $85,000). Then, in the middle of spring vacation, the principal was terminated (effective immediately), and the former interim principal was brought on as acting principal, Father Rafferty refused to meet with parents, but parents who had reenrolled their children were been asked for a further $1,500 deposit to be paid by July 1st (an unprecedented demand). (The principal was terminated for stated reason “We do not have confidence in your ability to lead the school through its current crisis”. No option to finish the school year was given. Several times it was described that the BSCO was actively helping her find a job, but to date she has not heard from them. It should be noted that, under this principal, the Annual Fund reached $70,000 and enrollment was on pace to stay level and possibly increase for the 2015-2016 academic year.)  He also stated that he would leave the future of the school to Father Sepe, who is scheduled to assume his new position on June 1.  In addition, the former principal was told by Father Rafferty that there would not be a search made for a new principal at St. Paul (as an aside, St. John the Evangelist school was seeking a new principal based on a posting on the Archdiocese’s website at the time and hired Michael Dibbert, a former English teacher and coach at BC High who got a Masters in Education from BC).

So in a period of three years, a stellar, high performing Catholic school with a 60-year history was allowed to disintegrate.  A school that was the only Boston Archdiocese Catholic school that, in addition to innumerable doctors, lawyers, priest, religious, teachers, nurses and other professionals, had a MacArthur Fellow among its alumni and which had passed the faith to generations of the faithful was left to implode.

Next Post Part 2: The Closing and Keeping of $60K+ Raised for the School

Correction and Clarification on Last Post Re: Retiring Pastor

June 17, 2013

BCI received a number of public comments and several private comments on our last post, and needs to issue a correction and clarification.

Since writing the post, we have learned a few additional pieces of important information.  The subject line, “Boston Archdiocese Evicts 90-year-old Retiring Pastor” and tone of the post conveyed a perspective on this particular situation that we realize now may not have accurately reflected all of the facts.  We have also learned that there is much more to the situation in Newton and adjoining communities than we originally realized.

We were correct that pastors such as 90-year-old Fr. Connelly, who retire as pastors in a collaborative, have to leave that collaborative.  A “new” pastor coming in may not want the “old guy” looking over his shoulder when he becomes pastor, and the “old guy”  may not want to be in the position of looking over the shoulder of the new pastor or having parishioners come to the “old guy” to complain about the “new guy.”  We were also correct that Fr. Connelly wanted to live in Wellesley near his elderly sister and is going to live at St. Pauls in Wellesley with Fr. Bryan Hehir and Fr. Thomas Powers.

However, in this case, the word “evict” was too strong and misrepresented the reality of the situation. Fr. Connelly voluntarily retired at the age of 90, and even though in the parish bulletin he had expressed a desire to stay in the local parish post-retirement, we learned that he did indeed not want to be living locally under a new pastor. Much to our surprise, Fr. Connelly, is in fact friends with Fr. Powers and accepted an invitation to work as Senior Priest in residence at the St. Johns rectory in Wellesley.  We apologize for using the wrong word in the headline and any implication that Fr. Connelly forced out or that his going to live at St. Johns in Wellesley was involuntary.

As for the sense of a “takeover” of the orthodox Sacred Heart in Newton by the less-orthodox pastor, Fr. John Sassani, from Our Ladys in Newton, it is true that Fr. Sassani is much less orthodox than Fr. Connelly, and we still see this as a concern. As background, we understand that a group of Sacred Heart parishioners who knew Fr. Sassani primarily from his having given Lenten missions wrote a letter to the archdiocese asking that he remain as pastor of the collaborative in Newton. In addition, after uproar over the removal of Fr. Walter Cuenin from Our Ladys some years ago, the folks in Braintree may have wanted to avoid upsetting this particular applecart right now. Contributing factors as those may be, BCI still sees this as problematic. If one merely looks at Our Ladys’ bulletin for the past 6-8 months, one will easily see the evidence of dissent from the Catholic faith in the programs offered.  Why should a pastor who allows and encourages dissent from the Catholic faith be given the green light from the archdiocese to broaden their influence over the faithful and lead yet more souls under their care astray?  This will be the topic of a subsequent post.

In addition, we are told publicly and privately that the focus on Sacred Heart and Fr. Sassani is missing even more of the “big picture” of what is happening in the Newton/Wellesley area around Pastoral Planning.

Why are Our Ladys and Sacred Heart now combined–with two churches and Mass schedules, while the smaller St. Bernards in Newton is remaining alone? (St. Bernards is “combined” in name and church-going population with Corpus Christi, but the Corpus Christi church building is now used exclusively by the Korean Catholic community, so you have one parish building at St. Bernards with one parish Mass and sacramental schedule).

And what is happening in nearby Wellesley?  Why was Fr. Richard Fitzgerald suddenly transferred from St. Pauls to St. Columbkille in Brighton?  That leaves St Paul,  the more traditional and orthodox parish in Wellesley, highly vulnerable.
St. Paul still has a parish-based Catholic school, and many orthodox Catholics send their children there. However, BCI understands that Fr. Tom Powers at nearby St. Johns has been angling to get the St Paul parish school closed and instead, to locate a new diocesan-managed Wellesley Catholic Academy at St John’s (where Voice of the Faithful formed back in 2002 under his tutelage).  We all know what a diocesan-managed “Catholic” academy under Mary Grassa O’Neill means.  Father Fitz had apparently resisted this move for several years. Now what happens?

So the big questions are:

  • What will happen to the previous orthodoxy at Sacred Heart in Newton with the less-than-orthodox Fr. Sassani taking over?   Is this part of a pattern of orthodox pastors in Boston retiring and being replaced by unorthodox pastors?
  • Who will get the whole of Wellesley?
  • Why is a parish such as St Bernard in Newton standing alone, while other larger parishes are combining?

Again, we apologize for not having full information on the Fr. Connelly situation when we wrote our last blog post about the changes in Newton.

ps. We understand there are problems at another Sacred Heart–Sacred Heart in Middleboro — part of a new collaborative that also includes Sts Martha and Mary in Lakeville and St Rose of Lima in Rochester.  A report from the vigil Mass this past Saturday was very concerning. Any parishioners who were at that Mass or who heard what happened–please drop us a line.

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