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February 16, 2006


Parents and other supporters of Holy Rosary Parochial School have been given a year's reprieve to work with their counterparts in neighboring St. Helena Parish to come up with a plan for a Catholic elementary school to serve eastern Brandywine Hundred.

Pastor Clemens Manista told a meeting of about 200 concerned people -- mostly Claymont residents -- that he and St. Helena pastor Stanley Russell were instructed by Bishop Michael Saltarelli to form a joint committee in hopes of producing an amicable alternative to his previous order to shut down both parishes' schools and open a 'new' one in the present St. Helena school building near Bellefonte.

By backing away from the original idea, the bishop pushed back the effective date of the merger from the start of the next academic year to September, 2007.

"We realize the merger is going to happen, [but] we would prefer to have the [school] site here," said Pam Coupe, one of the organizers of the meeting on Feb. 15.

"Hopefully we can come up with a plan over the next several months to convince the diocese we are the best site," said Principal Denise Jacono. Priority should be given, however, to determining "what's best for the children," she added.

The postponement was announced indirectly to the meeting through a few advance copies of the Dialog, the official diocesan newspaper. No one represented the diocese at the meeting and Mnista did not participate except to tell about the joint committee in response to a question about "the path going forward" near the end of the meeting.

That was in sharp contrast to what happened at a 'mandatory' meeting of Holy Rosary parents a week earlier, according to Lisa McCarthy, president of the Holy Rosary Home and School Association. Then, she said, diocesan school superintendent James Malone presented the merger as a fait accompli, with several details already set.

Generally declining Catholic school enrollment, here and elsewhere in the nation, which particularly affects schools in older areas, along with rising costs were cited as motivation for the planned merger.

The 'new' school would be named for the late pope, John Paul II, he reportedly said. Teachers from both the existing schools would have to apply to teach there and "efforts would be made to place" those who did not get jobs. There was no indication what tuition would be charged.

That meeting, she said. was closed to other parishioners and the community. There had been prior rumors of something like that happening, but no official word.

Lieutenant Governor John Carney, who grew up in the parish and graduated from Holy Rosary school, said the bishop's backing off was "a big win right up front." He urged meeting attenders and others to "work respectfully with the diocese" while bearing in mind that "the diocese is not really a democracy."

Carney headed a cast of influentials at the meeting. State representatives Robert Valihura and Diana McWilliams and County Councilman John Cartier pledged their support for efforts to keep open the Holy Rosary school.

Noting that a 'grassroots effort' sidetracked proposed state legislation having to do with stem-cell research, Valihura said, "You have it within your power to change things. We will be there to help you."

"This is not the time for the Catholic diocese to walk away from the Claymont community," Cartier said.

Brett Saddler, president of Claymont Renaissance Development Corp., said that, if the planned redevelopment of Claymont is to succeed, "it is essential that Holy Rosary [school] remain here." The planned 1,200-unit residential and commercial community on the site of the Brookview apartments complex will "bring in families that can afford to send their children" to non-public schools in sufficient number to easily offset declining enrollment.

He said that he and some lawmakers have arranged to take that message to Saltarelli in person. They also are concerned with disposal of the Children's Home site on Green Street, which several developers reportedly are bidding to buy, he said.

"This will be a full school in a few years -- just hold tight," Saddler said.

Holy Rosary currently has 233 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, which is about half its rated capacity. Tuition is about $3,000 a year.

Jacono urged parents of current Holy Rosary students to resist "a feeling they have to run out the door at this point."

Noting that having eight students who live in Pennsylvania enrolled entitles Holy Rosary to receive $1,000 a year from the commonwealth for textbooks. she said the diocese is going to make an effort "to convince our legislature to support us in ways that do not violate our Constitution."

Although Coupe maintained that the effort to keep Holy Rosary school open by having the 'new' school put there was not intended to alienate its participants from either the diocese or St. Helena Parish, the tone of much of the meeting was akin to a rally.

"We want no animosity, [but] we will not bail out on this school," she said.

The theme was set by a students-produced Power Point presentation depicting a wide range of scholastic, sports and other activities at the school.

Dave McCarthy presented several figures that contrasted Holy Rosary and St. Helena schools. Except for lacking a gymnasium,  having an older boiler and needing some roof repairs, Holy Rosary came out ahead in the comparison.

Among other things, he said, the Holy Rosary building is larger and can accommodate a combined enrollment with room to spare while St. Helena would require use of classroom trailers. The parish subsidy needed to finance operations is lower at Holy Rosary as is the cost per student. Moreover, Holy Rosary has 13 acres of unused property and a former convent now used as a retreat house which could be sold if necessary to finance a larger school.

St. Helena's enrollment is 178, the lowest of any of the 25 schools in the diocese, according to the Dialog article.

Holy Rosary school opened in 1950 with 80 students under the aegis of Ursuline nuns. Today, like most Catholic schools, its faculty is comprised of laypersons.

Jacono told the meeting that the decision to combine Holy Rosary and St. Helena schools came out of a 'steering committee' Saltarelli formed in 2003. She served on the committee, which functioned out of public view. It hired a consulting firm to study the diocesan school system in detail and formulate recommendations, she said.

She said she made it a point to furnish the consultants information on the movement to revitalize Claymont but added, "how far it got, I don't know."

A school to serve both parishes -- and  possibly Holy Child Parish, which serves northwest and north-central Brandywine Hundred but does not have a parochial school -- follows a pattern used by the diocese in recent years. Regional elementary schools in the Glasgow area and in Berlin, Md., which is included in the diocese's jurisdiction, each serve several parishes.

2006. All rights reserved.


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