Some area Catholics are fighting to keep their schools open next fall, even as they scramble to register their children in other Catholic schools for the 2014-15 academic year.
Parishioners of St. Francis of Assisi Church in the City of Tonawanda have written a formal appeal of the decision shutting down their school, and if Bishop Richard J. Malone doesn’t reconsider, they plan to press their case with the Vatican.
“If we have to go all the way up to the Vatican, our pope’s name is Francis – he took the name of Francis of Assisi. I think we have a very good chance,” said Mark E. Saltarelli, a longtime parishioner and lawyer who wrote the legal appeal to Malone.
The parish and school have significant financial means, thanks to a $500,000 endowment fund established years ago to benefit the school.
Meanwhile, parents in Orchard Park have met with a lawyer to discuss their opposition to the closing of St. Bernadette School. And the leaders of two schools in Elma on the closure list are proposing a merger of the schools as a way to limit the hardships that parents will face if both schools close.
St. Vincent de Paul and Annunciation schools, both tabbed to be closed in June, surveyed parents to determine whether they could send their kids to another Catholic school.
They will pass along the survey results to the bishop and diocesan school officials.
At parishes where schools are due to close, many pastors have been put in the difficult spot of identifying with angry parents, while remaining obedient to the bishop, required by their vows as diocesan priests.
In a letter to parents and parishioners, the Rev. Eugene P. Ulrich, pastor of Annunciation parish, bluntly criticized the diocese’s effort to revitalize schools as undermining “trust in Catholic education at the very time the diocese is attempting to stabilize and strengthen the system.”
But Ulrich said he had no interest in antagonizing Malone through a canonical appeal process.
“We want to bring to him the hardship that would be faced by many of our parents if they choose to keep their kids in Catholic education,” Ulrich said. “I’d rather go down that path than fight the bishop.”
Some children could face an hourlong bus ride to and from other Catholic schools outside Elma, he said.
Through a spokesman, officials with the Diocese of Buffalo declined to be interviewed for this story and instead offered a prepared statement calling the school closing decisions announced Jan. 15 final.
“We understand the pain and disappointment among some parents, students, faculty, staff and school supporters, as they respond to the Catholic elementary school revitalization announcement. Bishop Malone continues to encourage all involved to put their energies into finding a nearby school where students can continue their Catholic education, and to focus on our children and not buildings,” according to the statement. “Please be advised we do not intend to respond through the media to efforts to appeal the Bishop’s decision, which is final. Those conversations will be conducted directly with the parties involved.”
Nonetheless, some Catholics said they deserve at least an explanation of how diocesan officials reached their decisions.
Saltarelli wrote the legal paperwork on behalf of parishioners of St. Francis.
“It’s the only way to get somebody’s attention to address the issues with us,” he said. “Nobody from the bishop’s office has responded to me. I’ve requested meetings.”
Canon law requires an appeal be initiated within 10 days of a closing announcement, Saltarelli said. Malone then has 30 days to respond.
The appeal may be taken to the Vatican, if parishioners are not satisfied with his response.
Parishioners of five local Catholic churches that were closed a few years ago pursued appeals with the Vatican.
But appealing the closing of a school is rare for American Catholics, said Michael Dunnigan, general counsel for the St. Joseph Foundation, an organization in Texas that provides canon law advice to lay Catholics.
“It’s less common,” Dunnigan said. “I’m really not sure why it’s not more common. I guess folks who have kids in school just have more demands on their time.”
Saltarelli does not currently have children in the school, but he is an active member of the St. Francis parish, and he serves on an endowment committee that provides financial aid for the school.
In his letter to Malone, Saltarelli cited canon law 1734, which addresses recourse against administrative decrees issued by a pastor or bishop.
“It’s a very general process,” he said. “You can appeal anything under canon law if you’re an aggrieved parishioner.”
Parishioners Mark Warren and Linda Carlson also are listed as petitioners in the appeal.
Residents of the cities of Tonawanda and North Tonawanda have been among the most vocal protesters of Malone’s decision to shut down St. Francis.
City councils in both municipalities recently passed resolutions supporting the school. The Niagara County Legislature passed a similar measure.
In 2010, the diocese shut down a North Tonawanda Catholic school due to declining enrollment and a $100,000 budget deficit.
“To do this again after you just closed us three years ago, it’s hard,” said Carolyn Gorski, who has two sons at St. Francis. “When North Tonawanda closed, over half the kids came to St. Francis. We service the two cities.”
The closing of St. Francis would leave the Twin Cities with no Catholic school. And children in the cities would be left without bussing to other Catholic schools in the Town of Tonawanda, because the cities are not obligated to transport students outside city boundaries.
The school’s supporters also pointed out that enrollment grew in the past decade and called the school fiscally strong.
A few years ago, the diocese established criteria for how schools should be funded. No more than a quarter of a school’s budget was to come from parish subsidy, while 60 percent was to come from tuition and 15 percent from fundraising.
St. Francis was “well within those guidelines” and “does not have a financial problem,” Saltarelli said.
The school has the added benefit of an endowment fund bolstered about three years ago by the estate of banker George Pequet. The endowment is valued at about $500,000 and contributes about $35,000 annually to school projects.
The fund’s bylaws state that if the school closes, the money must stay with the parish and be used for “educational purposes.”
The assets would be distributed to the diocese only if the parish no longer exists.
Gorski is among dozens of parents who are hedging their bets by registering their children for next year both at St. Francis and at another Catholic school, most likely St. Christopher in the Town of Tonawanda.
“I can’t not register my son at St. Christopher and then wait with the hope that this comes through,” she said.
Many of the Catholic schools that will be open next school year are hosting open houses this weekend. But some parents said their children have been placed on waiting lists, and in some cases, siblings might have to attend different Catholic schools due to space constraints at certain grade levels.
“They’re scrambling to make sure they’re on the list someplace,” Ulrich said.