St. Bridget protesters demand answers from church officials

In the latest effort to bring attention to their cause, parents, students and alumnus of St. Bridget School in East Falls rallied Sunday afternoon to continue their protest of a decision by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to shutter the doors of their school.

As reported by Newsworks, the Archdiocese announced its plans on Jan. 6 for a merger of St. Bridget and Holy Child Regional School in Manayunk – with the latter school being the proposed site of the combined student bodies.

On Jan. 19, St. Bridget’s parents presented a formal appeal to the Archdiocese urging a reconsideration of a Manayunk-based regional school, citing statistics that suggest comparatively favorable conditions at the East Falls location.

The parents were informed on Feb. 17 that their plea would not be accommodated, with the sole justification provided by the Archdiocese being that “significant effort and resources [were] committed to the merger of the five Manayunk parish schools in a regional school and the Archdiocese wanted to continue to support that decision.”

A protest rally held at St. Bridget School on Feb. 23 sought to bring sentiment, statistics – and the salience of the Archdiocese’s edict – to a larger audience. 

Frustration with church officials’ silence 

According to protest leaders, the Archdiocese all but ignored the February assembly.

Sean Stevens – East Falls resident and St. Bridget Media Committee member – expressed frustration at church officials’ silence.

“We’ve been given zero answers,” said Stevens. “When you don’t have answers, and when you don’t have explanations,” he added, “you start thinking it must be political – (the decision) must be about something else besides sustainability.”

Stevens observed that Holy Child is the home parish of Bishop Daniel Thomas, and speculated that this relationship may have contributed to the selection of Holy Family as the site of the merger.

Archdiocese Spokeswoman Donna Farrell replied on behalf of Bishop Thomas in an email statement on Monday morning. 

“Regarding the speculation about Manayunk that is absolutely untrue. The entire Blue Ribbon Commission process has been a deliberative, thoughtful, prayerful one. Its not influenced by where anyone attended school decades ago,” Farrell wrote. 

Stevens also lamented the response of various members of the Archdiocesan hierarchy.

He indicated that while Mary Rochford – Superintendent of Schools for the Archdiocese – issued no formal response, “she basically said, ‘it was time to move on.'”

In an email sent to NewsWorks on Monday night, Superintendent Rochford said her initial response to those who asked about the decision was as follows:

“The Review committee’s recommendation is for the newly formed regional school that will service the children of Manayunk and East Falls be settled at the current site of Holy Child Regional School. The school facility has been upgraded with great financial commitment over the past five years and the property should not be abandoned at this time.” 

She added that when those same people emailed back for a different reason she told them ‘the reason had been expressed’ and ‘we all need to move along to forming this new regional school.” 

Stevens reserved his strongest criticism for the Blue Ribbon Commission, the Archdiocese’s advisory group that determined the fates of Philadelphia parochial schools earlier this year.

He observed that 40-percent of the Commission’s decisions have been overturned which, for him, calls into question the entire process.

“If you get 40-percent wrong on a test,” said Stevens, “that’s an ‘F’ – whether you go to public school or Catholic school.”

Lack of presence and communication from the pastor 

According to protest leaders, while Archbishop Charles Chaput has disregarded numerous emails sent by those concerned with the future of St. Bridget School, Chaput has, on occasion, suggested that parishioners turn to their local pastor for assistance in dealing with closures.

Rev. Joseph Devlin, Pastor at St. Bridget Parish in East Falls, was not in attendance at the rally yesterday, causing some to question his stance regarding – and commitment to – his school’s cause.

Rev. Devlin was not immediately available for comment.

Stevens offered that Rev. Devlin’s actions and oversight are governed by the church’s hierarchical structure – the result being that the priest is often not able to address his parishioner’s questions regarding the merger.

“He’s become embarrassed by that,” said Stevens, adding, “He’s in a very difficult position.”

Fund-raising efforts 

While the St. Bridget School community waits for a substantive response from church officials, parents are investigating strategies – and alternatives.

In consultation with the parents at other Philadelphia parochial schools, St. Bridget parents are raising money in order to gain leverage with the Archdiocese.

So far, they have raised approximately $10,000 since the Feb. 23 rally, according to Stevens, and plan to start a 501c3 nonprofit organization.

“It’s a leverage point,” he said. “We need to have cash in hand to get a seat at the table.”

Asked if plans for secession from the Archdiocese were in consideration, Stevens questioned the feasibility of such a plan, and said that parents were focusing their efforts on averting closure.

In the interim, some St. Bridget parents are availing themselves of “walk-through” tours offered by Holy Child.

Matt Navea, father of two St. Bridget students, attended an open house at the Manayunk facility last week.

“The kids looked happy and the faculty looked competent,” he observed, but noted that there was some confusion as to the actual implementation of the merger.

While Holy Child is indeed closer to the Navea’s Roxborough home, he feels that St. Bridget is the more viable option.

“We want to put our kids in the best possible place to succeed,” he said, “and our feeling is that place is Saint Bridget’s.”

It’s this feeling that keeps the school’s parents motivated.

Stevens said he plans to remain a “thorn in [the Archdiocese’s] side” until transparency is provided and definitive answers are obtained.

“Archbishop Chaput came into the Archdiocese to restore trust,” said Stevens, noting that, “without transparency, you can’t have trust – and you can’t have confidence.”

Editor’s note: A response from Superintendent Rochford was added on Tuesday morning, after the initial report was published. 

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