Parents, community not giving up on Portland Catholic school

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PORTLAND — The Roman Catholic Diocese said last month that it would close the Cathedral School.

But a group of parents, students and community members are not giving up on the 147-year-old school at 14 Locust St.

On Sunday, a few dozen people held the first of several planned demonstrations outside of the school, which opened in 1864. Another gathering has been scheduled for Saturday at 3 p.m.

Michael Cantlin, a Falmouth resident who is a parishioner at the nearby Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, said the group is trying to arrange a meeting with Bishop Richard Malone to convince the bishop to keep the school open.

Cantlin said the group has been researching other Catholic schools throughout the country, and believes the school can remain open, provided a few changes are made.

“We had no choice, or vote in the matter,” Cantlin said. “This is more than just a school closing. If don’t even have kids at the school, but I realize the value of this school.”

Cantlin said the group has been trying to quietly persuade the bishop to meet with them, but have been unsuccessful. “We want to hopefully settle this easily, but it’s not going that way,” he said.

The Diocese last month announced the 135-student school would be closed for financial reasons.

This year, the school is expected to run a deficit of $115,000, a debt that will have to be absorbed by Cathedral Parish. A $250,000 deficit was projected if the school stays open for another year.

The parish has already spent $330,000 for emergency funding, and will likely have to take out a long-term loan to cover the cost, the Diocese said.

Malone said in a prepared statement that the decision was “sad and difficult.”

Sixth-grader Samantha Giusti said she was so upset about the school’s planned closing that she set up a Facebook page, “Help Me Save Cathedral School,” to generate support.

The 12-year-old also appealed to higher powers, sending letters to the Pope, President Obama and Oprah Winfrey.

“I’ve been going (to Cathedral School) since kindergarten and I want to graduate from there,” she said. “I was wondering if they could help out.”

News of the school’s June closing took several parents off guard, sending them scrambling to make arrangements for their children’s education next year.

Portland resident Diane Giusti said the only options for her daughter are Holy Cross in South Portland or Lyman Moore Middle School, a Portland public school.

Some parents said the other Catholic school in Portland, St. Brigid’s School on Stevens Avenue, has a waiting list.

“I’m praying everyday,” Giusti said. “We’re holding on for a miracle.”

For parents like Heidi Czerkes of Gray, Holy Cross isn’t really an option, because it is too far away.

If the Cathedral School closes, Czerkes said she would likely home-school her son, because a Catholic education is important to her family.

Czerkes said many Catholic schools in the U.S. are in financial trouble, but are instituting new programs to stay afloat. She said she hopes the bishop will follow through on a promise to meet with parents, so new ideas can be presented.

Parents, however, declined to publicly discuss their proposal prior to their meeting with the bishop.

“We don’t want to be in confrontation with the bishop,” Czerkes said. “We want to work in collaboration with the bishop.”

Diocese spokeswoman Sue Bernard said Malone has agreed to meet with a small group of parents, but could not say when the meeting will be held.

“Bishop Malone understands the passion and concern of the parents for their children,” Bernard said in an email. “That’s why the decision to close the school was postponed for years while a number of groups of committed parents as well as clergy and lay leadership worked to reverse the financial problems.”

But Czerkes said if the school supporters get their meeting they believe they can reverse the decision of the diocese.

“We are really confident if we can present the information we found to (the bishop) that there is a very strong chance we could save our school,” she said.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or Follow him on Twitter: @randybillings.

Sidebar Elements

As parishioners arrive for Sunday Mass at The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland, second-grader Amy Blanchard, left, and sisters Dorcas (kindergarten) and Bettina Bolese (second grade) join parents and other supporters of Cathedral School at the gate on Cumberland Avenue to show their opposition to a plan to close the school.