McGann-Mercy Closing Its Doors

Kitty Merrill

Yet another Catholic school is biting the dust.

Bishop McGann-Mercy High School in Riverhead is being shut down in June, the Diocese of Rockville Centre revealed in a terse press release last week.

The surprise decision stunned East End students who attend classes there or who have signed up to begin in September.

It is a continuation of a nationwide trend: Catholic schools are disappearing.

In 2011, the diocese closed six elementary schools on Long Island. It closed another, Stella Maris in Sag Harbor, in 2012.

The Stella Maris closing caused a major rift between the diocese hierarchy and parents who claimed they were “misled and extorted” by the decision makers in the church.

Bishop John Barres said in a statement that McGann-Mercy has received $16.3 million in subsidies from the diocese since 2007, but that enrollment has steadily declined. Only 55 students have registered for the incoming freshman class, he said. But, given it is only March, that figure could have swelled had the school opted to remain open. This year’s graduating class comprises 91 students, according to the bishop.

According to the New York State Public High School Athletic Association McGann-Mercy, which is allowed to compete in public school sports leagues, is classified as a Class C school, with a senior high school enrollment of 265, or an average of about 66 students per grade. McGann-Mercy also operates a junior high school in the high school building.

“We have had to make some tough decisions,” Barres said. “Students who wish to continue their Catholic school education will be given the opportunity to enroll at St. John the Baptist in West Islip.”

In addition, two Catholic elementary schools, Our Lady of Mercy Regional School in Cutchogue and St. Isidore School in Riverhead, will merge into the St. Isidore building. The school will be re-named St. John Paul II Regional School.

The diocese noted that there has been a 6.2 percent drop in the overall school-age population in Suffolk County between 2011 and 2016 (See the Independent March 14 issue for more about local school enrollments.) that factored into to its decision to close McGann-Mercy. However, there are studies that indicate the overall decline in Catholic School population is a byproduct of the thousands of accusations made against Catholic priests saying they engaged in inappropriate sexual conduct with minors.

The scandal has also robbed the church of its ability to finance its own school system. According to an exhaustive study by Jack and Diane Ruhl of the National Catholic Reporter, the Vatican has authorized $4 billion to settle claims against wayward priests. That sum does not include the cost of therapy for the victims, help for the offenders, or the creation of “safe environment” programs: exhaustive reviews and background checks of clergy and potential priests to assure they can be trusted in the company of children.

Those expenses make it impossible to finance learning institutions, which are now run as stand-alone businesses. “They’re paying to hush people up,” said Jennifer Fowkes, one of the parents who became disgruntled with Stella Maris.

“We recognize the pain and disruption that this decision [to close the school] causes our school families. It is heartbreaking to our students, their parents and families, and our dedicated faculty,” Barres said.

In addition, it has been reported that Riverhead’s Peconic Bay Medical Center has been looking to expand its facility. The adjacency of the McGann-Mercy building could make an ideal location for the expansion.

A number of the parents at Stella Maris complained that the closure was announced after all tuition had been paid. The same thing apparently occurred at McGann-Mercy, Jennifer Fowkes noted.

Jennifer and her husband, Bill had children enrolled at Stella Maris. They wanted to continue to send their children to a Catholic school. The next nearest was Our Lady of the Hamptons in Southampton. As it turned out, local school districts are required to pay for the busing of district residents who choose to attend a school outside their district — but only up to 15 miles. The Fowkes live 16 miles away from Our Lady of the Hamptons.

Stella Maris, like McGann-Mercy, got little financial support from the diocese, depending instead on generous contributions from parents, insiders said. Tuition costs about $5500 for the first child and upwards of $9000 for two in the same family. However, parents voluntarily paid far more.

In a typical year, parents raise an additional $200,000 or so, from contributions, fundraisers etc., according to more than a half-dozen parents The Independent interviewed. They were shocked to find out Stella Maris ran up massive deficit nevertheless.

Some families feel a Catholic school education is worth going the extra mile, literally.

The next two closest Catholic schools to the East End are St. John the Baptist High School in West Islip and St. Anthony’s High School in South Huntington.

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