Parents appeal decision to close St. Gabriel School

In addition to collecting funds to save St. Gabriel School from closing, parents have filed an appeal to the Archdiocese of Hartford regarding a decision to close the school in June.

Parish and archdiocese officials have said it was a parish decision to close the school for financial reasons, and not an archdiocese decision.

Adding layers to a controversial decision to close one of Milford’s two remaining Catholic schools, the local homeless shelter, which had been working with the St. Gabriel Parish to buy a portion of the school property to build low-cost housing, is still interested in buying the land and disappointed that the sale was turned down.

Parents have raised objections on several levels about news that the school would close. At a meeting at the church recently, parents said that selling a portion of the school property would have helped keep the school open by stabilizing school finances.

That thwarted property sale was not discussed in detail when parents were told last month that the school would close, but Toni Dolan, director of the Beth-El Homeless Shelter, confirmed this week that the shelter had made a “viable offer” to buy three acres of the parish-owned land.

Shelter officials had been discussing the sale for at least two years. A 2013 letter from the Archdiocese of Hartford to the Rev. Maurice Maroney, then pastor at St. Gabriel Church, grants Maroney permission to “explore the sale of three acres at St. Gabriel School to Beth-El Shelter for the purpose of building affordable housing units for the elderly, poor and disabled, providing the lay members of the parish corporation support the transaction and the majority of the parishioners and stakeholders raise no objections. …”

Dolan said she was very disappointed when she got a letter from Father Maroney in April 2015 saying the parish was declining Beth-El’s offer to buy the land. Father Maroney’s April letter states that questions were raised regarding the “massing and number of the units.”

Dolan responded with a letter April 29, expressing her disappointment, and stating that “at all times we have operated in good faith in our dealings with you and various members of the parish community, and that in the course of preparing for further discussion we have spent funds to retain a pre-development consultant, procured a survey and an appraisal, and have been fortunate enough to secure a preliminary grant of a portion of the acquisition funds.”

In that letter, Dolan asked Father Maroney to reconsider. This week, Dolan said Beth-El is still interested in buying the property.

She said the shelter planned to build about 30 units of housing, primarily for veterans and homeless veterans, as well as others in need.

“There is quite a need, and that would have helped to solve that need,” Dolan said.

At the January meeting when parents were told the school would close, John Judge, a parish trustee, said he and Father Maroney had taken the land-sale plan to the archdiocese but were told that since the archdiocese was in a pastoral planning process, no assets could be sold. He also said the sale might have fixed the immediate problem but not the long-term financial problems caused by declining enrollment at the school.

The latest move, the appeal of the decision to close the school, is dated Feb. 2 and is addressed to Archbishop Leonard P. Blair.

In their appeal, Deirdre and William Doyle, whose children attend the school, argue that policies and procedures were not followed in determining the school should close. They say the parish failed to prepare a written analysis “that it must submit prior to requesting closure of the school,” and that Father Declan Creighton, who they say is administrator of St. Gabriel Parish and not the pastor, does not have the power and authority to request that the school be closed. Other parents have since joined their appeal.

The appeal also argues that the parish’s decision not to sell a portion of the land to the Beth-El Shelter violated former Archbishop Henry Mansell’s Nov. 7, 2013, approval to Father Maroney to explore the sale.

Their appeal demands that the decree to close St. Gabriel School be revoked and that negotiations with Beth-El resume.

Along with filing the appeal, parents said their focus has shifted to finding a building to house an independent St. Gabriel School.

“This is no small task; we need assistance from the community in order to make this dream a reality,” one parent said. “We are searching for benefactors or anyone that can assist us in finding an appropriate space for our independent school.”

A GoFundMe page has raised $11,000, but one parent described that as “just a drop in the bucket.”

The archdiocese has not been reached yet for a comment regarding the appeal, but in a press release issued Jan. 26 by the Archdiocese of Hartford, Father Declan states, “As much as the parish and school board would prefer to be in a different situation, the reality of the financial burdens that the school continues to create for parishioners and parents is beyond our present means of sustainability.”