SPRINGFIELD – The message delivered about the fate of Cathedral High School has, in the words of Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno, has “created more questions.”
The press conference conducted by Bishop Mitchell Rozanski on Feb. 23 revealed the diocese is now undertaking a study to determine the location of a new regional Catholic high school and that it would merge the student bodies and missions of Cathedral with Holyoke Catholic High School.
Since the press conference, though Reminder Publications has learned that three locations are in play – in West Springfield near the property that is the site for the convent for the Dominican nuns and in Chicopee near the Elms College, as well as the Surrey Road site of the high school.
Rozanski never mentioned there any specific locations being considered. Mark Dupont, the spokesperson for the diocese, said the bishop wanted to keep his message “as broad-based as possible.”
Mark Dupont, the spokesperson for the diocese, said that the mayors of Springfield, West Springfield and Chicopee mayors received courtesy calls prior to the press conference, the message to each mayor was different.
The multiple sites came as a surprise to Sarno who said that never once in any conversation he had with either the former present bishop was the fact brought up the diocese was considering any other site for the high school other than Surrey Road.
“Never mentioned,” Sarno emphasized.
“I’m very disappointed a curve ball has been thrown at myself, the grassroots committees and Congressman [Richard] Neal. There was never any mention of a Dominican Nuns, U.S. Route 5 site or the Elms and Holyoke Catholic was never thrown directly into the mix,” Sarno said.
Sarno added, “I will continue to work with the diocese as long as they work with me.”
Dupont said it was “hard to understand Sarno’s interpretation” of the bishop’s message. He said that when Rozanski began the process to evaluate the Cathedral question in November 2014, Dupont thought everyone realized the location of a new school was also to be evaluated.
“I can’t explain the misunderstanding,” Dupont said. He added, “The city has been very gracious and very helpful.”
Dupont discounted a site near Elms College as the only property available would be the campus of the now-closed Holy Name school, which would not be big enough.
Rozanski has been in regular communication with West Springfield Mayor Edward Sullivan who said he learned about the consideration of the Dominican Nuns site the morning prior to Rozanski’s press conference.
Sullivan said the site is more than 50 acres and has frontage directly on Riverdale Street. He said in the past the city had tried to buy the property itself with Community Preservation Act funds, but the diocese wasn’t interested in selling.
Mayor Richard Kos of Chicopee said he is preparing a presentation for the diocese suggesting a new Catholic high school be built on the 20-acre site of the former Uniroyal tire plant.
“We are at the crossroads of commerce. Why not be at the crossroads of education as well?” Kos asked.
He apparently did not have an advance word the diocese is considering a location near Elms College, the only Catholic college in the region.
When asked about a story given to this reporter that a site has already been selected– the West Springfield location – Dupont responded, “Let me say emphatically that is not the case. No site has been selected.”
Besides the confusion over the location, Rozanski said the name of the school has yet to be determined. Rozanski has asked Dr. Paul Gagliarducci, former superintendent of Hampden-Wilbraham schools to chair the new Catholic Secondary Education Initiative.
Rozanski said, “While I am very excited about the possibilities this plan offers at the same time I recognize that this new entity will mean some sacrifices and a sense of loss on behalf of both Holyoke Catholic and Cathedral communities.”
The bishop said he would like to have a short term goal of bringing the two present student bodies together for the fall of 2016 and have a new school built in two and half years.
He called Holyoke Catholic in its current location “unsustainable.”
Holyoke Catholic interim Principal Mary Anne Linnehan said the school currently has about 250 students and is looking toward its largest freshman class of 100 students in the September.
Rozanski visited Holyoke Catholic on Feb. 25 to speak with the student body.
The merger would not affect St. Mary’s School in Westfield, as the diocese does not control it, Rozanski noted.
The bishop envisioned a new school would have the capacity of 400 to 500 students.
He added that St. Michael’s Middle School would remain where it is located in the Holy Cross campus.
The endowment effort for scholarships would continue as Rozanski said, “The key to Catholic education today is to have a solid endowment.”
In regards to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funds which were acquired for the cleanup of the Surrey Road site, Rozanski said there will be conversations with FEMA and with Neal about how those finds could be used if the high school is not rebuilt on Surrey Road. The bishop also declined to speculate at this time about the use of that property if it is not used as a high school.
Reaction to his statement was swift and critical and came first from City Council President Michael Fenton, a Cathedral alum who has been prominent in the Committee for Cathedral Action. While Fenton was denied access, CCA Chair Al DiLascia was allowed in.
Fenton questioned how the city was able to replace the Elias Brookings Museum Magnet School, which was also damaged in the tornado, within four years but the diocese has not begun constructing a new Cathedral.
He called the discussion of moving the location of the school as “not rational.” Fenton added the city has been paying for Springfield Cathedral students to be bussed to Wilbraham and has been patient with the pace of the cleanup of the Surrey Road site.
City Councilor Timothy Rooke said the day after the press conference, “Most of the people I spoke with, who reached out to me were disappointed with the lack of detail in the press conference. Although I will be supportive of Bishop Rozanski I don’t blame him. He was dragged into this mess. I will give him a pass. But there were people around him who led him to believe they were looking at all of options for the last four years.”
Rooke had expected at the announcement the diocese was rebuilding a Cathedral on Surrey Road and would be presenting initial designs and timelines.
Congressman Richard Neal said, “While I welcome Bishop Rozanski’s statement that he intends to rebuild a new Catholic high school in Western Massachusetts, my belief that Surrey Road is the best and only location for that facility has not changed. Simply put, when I sought federal assistance from FEMA following the tornado in June 2011, I did so with the understanding that Cathedral High School would be rebuilt on its original site in East Forest Park. That was the purpose of securing public disaster assistance. And after Bishop Timothy McDonnell’s emphatic statement last March, I believed the issue was done and dusted. It has been nearly four years since the tornado touched down on Surrey Road and during that time the Cathedral family has been extraordinarily patient and supportive. We have given the diocese space and allowed them to do their due diligence. I don’t think it is unreasonable to suggest that we now deserve answers. The history of Springfield and Cathedral are intertwined, and it is hard to imagine one without the other. That is why I will continue to support the effort to rebuild the regional high school in East Forest Park. In my opinion, it remains the only logical site.”
State Rep. Angelo Puppolo Jr. said, “I must say that I am very disappointed in the bishop’s announcement – or lack thereof – today relative to definitely rebuilding Cathedral High School. While a regional high school combining Holyoke Catholic and Cathedral is an interesting idea, in my opinion, there is no reason to look any further than the Surrey Road site for any such high school. I will continue to stress the importance of fully utilizing and rebuilding the Surrey Road site. Plain and simple let’s rebuild on Surrey Road – what is the bishop waiting for? It's not rocket science. Sell or give Holyoke Catholic to the Elms and rebuild a combined High School on Surrey Road in Springfield. No need for drawn out committees and further delays! It’s been 3 1/2 years already.”
The CCA also released a lengthy statement. It read in part, “We at the Committee for Cathedral Action are pleased that Bishop Rozanski made the correct decision to rebuild Cathedral High School. In his short time, the bishop has undoubtedly witnessed the invaluable role Cathedral has played in shaping generations of children and families in our region and his positive statements reflect an emerging understanding that present and future generations need and deserve the unique faith-based opportunities that Cathedral High School does and can continue to provide … Geographically the school is also easier to access from the more affluent suburbs such as East Longmeadow, Longmeadow, Wilbraham, Hampden and northern Connecticut. Many alumni have since moved to these suburbs but still send and want to send their children to Cathedral. If it is in a less accessible place that is further away and outside of Springfield. Cathedral will undoubtedly lose those students.
“Financially it makes sense to stay on Surrey Road as the city of Springfield has supported Cathedral High School by providing busing for Cathedral students and allows them to take part of their subsidized lunch program. If Cathedral is not on Surrey Road we highly doubt that the city of Springfield, whose mayor and City Council president strongly support rebuilding in Springfield, will continue to help in those matters. Furthermore, Congressman Neal who fought hard to secure FEMA money is on record stating that, a Springfield without Cathedral High School is an ‘unthinkable’ notion. It will be very hard to build an adequate school anywhere else if that FEMA money is not tied to the Surrey Road site legally it sure is politically. In addition, we were very happy to help push our supporters to contribute and pledge to the Tuition Assistance Fund, which hit its goal of over 2,000 pledges. Those pledges were tied to putting a shovel in the ground for a new Cathedral on Surrey Road. If the choice is not Surrey Road many of those pledges will not be fulfilled.