The bishop of the Erie Diocese has extended an official olive branch to a Venango Catholic High School support group in the form of 30 days to prove the school is worth saving.
Last month, Bishop Lawrence T. Persico made the decision that the 53-year old institution would close at the end of the current school year.
But faculty, parents, students and the community have mounted a forceful effort to fight that decision, raising money in pledges and commitments for student enrollment over the next five years.
Their efforts resulted in an invitation by the bishop for the leadership of “Save VCHS” to come to Erie for a meeting to discuss the situation, which took place for nearly two hours late Thursday afternoon.
“It went as well as we could have expected,” said Tom McNellie, a social studies teacher at VC and one of the leaders of the group. “The biggest thing for me was the bishop listened to us for an hour and 45 minutes. That’s a long time to spend with a bishop. He looked at us and listened to us. I was very pleased with that.”
“I certainly slept better last night,” said Greg Merkel on Friday. Merkel is a local attorney volunteering to help the group.
“Short of the bishop saying ‘I’m keeping the school open indefinitely,’ he gave us the next best thing,” Merkel said.
The Rev. Shane Mathew is in the unique position of being the headmaster at VC and also part of the task force that coordinated research for and the writing of the comprehensive plan that included the school closure, which was announced Feb. 16.
“There was good, honest communication between the bishop and the Save VCHS group,” Mathew said. “Both sides have a better shared understanding of moving forward with what a viable plan might look like.”
Mathew said he’s in a position to help both sides understand each other.
“The bishop spent a lot of money on consultants,” said Merkel. “I was not expecting him to have such a collaborative spirit. He opened up the meeting by asking us what we wanted.”
Christine Zagar, as the legal procurator representing all those making the formal appeal, asked the bishop to reverse his decision and keep the school open.
That is when the bishop said he would suspend his decision to close the school and gave the group a month to, in essence, save it.
The Erie Diocese issued a news release Friday that said the bishop gave the group 30 days to “come up with a viable plan that would ensure the school is able to maintain a healthy enrollment and move forward without a deficit.”
“I want to give the community time to respond to this challenge, but I am concerned it may give them false hope,” Persico said in the release. “If they cannot produce a plan that shows the viability of Venango Catholic, then my decision to close Venango Catholic remains in effect.”
The release said the group has until April 18 to provide the diocese details of the plan. It said the bishop outlined two requirements, referring to 102 students and an amount of $300,000. That would include hiring three new staff in the areas of technology, development and marketing.
Amanda Slider, serving as the group’s marketing and finance coordinator, clarified the actual figure was about $253,000.
“That’s the amount we have to raise to cover our (annual) operating expenses over the next five years,” said Slider.
Mathew said that while the group does have to show total fundraising for that amount in pledges for the fall and the next five years to satisfy the bishop’s requirement, the 102-student-enrollment was not intended to be an immediate requirement.
“That would be impossible,” Mathew said. “That was not the bishop’s expectation. That would be the goal over three or four years with benchmarks along the way. I would interpret that as meaning VC needs to come up with 25-30 freshmen in the next several classes.”
Also assisting the VC group is canon law attorney Philip Gray from the St. Joseph Foundation in Hopedale, Ohio. The non-profit legal organization was founded in 1984 to advise and represent individuals and groups specifically to resolve Catholic legal issues.
“Canon law is the legal system of the Catholic church,” said Gray. “Just like any other legal system structures a society, canon law structures the Catholic church. It is the oldest living legal system in the world, and it’s influenced every legal system in the West.”
Gray said any approach in canon law in what is called an administrative forum, such as the VCHS case, he would be obliged by divine law to approach the bishop for proper collaboration and dialogue.
“It says in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus said if you have a problem with your brother, you go to your brother and try to work it out,” Gray said. “If he doesn’t work it out you take witnesses, then you take him to the church. Then you turn him over to the world. Essentially, canon law follows that process in its whole administrative process and that’s what we’re doing.”
“There are two big things the bishop asked us for,” said McNellie. “We need to formally register students for the fall, using our own school registration forms. And we need to raise more money.”
“We need to demonstrate the sustainability of the school,” Slider said. “Our long-term plan has to show annual operating expenses, capital expenditures like buildings and grounds and we have to expand our tuition assistance program.”
A Save VCHS rally is planned for 6:30 p.m. Monday in the VC gym, with an opportunity for VC parents to officially register their children for the 2016-17 school year.
“We’re hoping for new people to come out Monday night – those who may have not come out before because the bishop had already closed the school,” said McNellie. “You have to have faith in your community, and I have always had faith in Oil City and the surrounding area.”
“This is a group of teachers being guided by the Holy Spirit,” McNellie said. “Community support has been great and you can’t underestimate the power of prayer.”