BY TOM DALTON
---- — SALEM — The Archdiocese of Boston turned down a request by a Salem parish that wanted to lease space to a group that hoped to open an independent Catholic school here.
Nativity Preparatory School had the backing of Immaculate Conception Parish to open a tuition-free middle school for boys in grades five through eight. The organizers said they planned to target boys from low-income families, including children from the city’s largely Latino Point neighborhood.
The Immaculate Conception finance committee voted to lease the former St. Mary’s School building on Hawthorne Boulevard, but the plan was rejected by the Archdiocese, which owns the property, according to people familiar with the negotiations.
“I’m very disappointed in the Archdiocese,” said Joe O’Keefe, a Salem city councilor and member of the finance committee. “I don’t really think they got all the information...”
The Archdiocese said its mission is to focus on its own Catholic school system.
“We have wonderful Catholic schools in the Salem area currently serving nearly 170 Salem students,” Terrence Donilon, a spokesman for the Archdiocese, wrote in an email. “We are committed to strengthening and enhancing these schools in the years ahead.”
There are several Nativity Prep schools in the Boston area. They are not part of the Archdiocese’s school system.
Salem, which once had nearly a dozen Catholic schools, saw its last parochial school, St. Joseph Grammar School, close four years ago.
O’Keefe raised the issue Sunday night during a citywide meeting of Catholics called to discuss the Archdiocese’s new pastoral plan. The Archdiocese is grouping parishes in “collaboratives” in an effort to pool resources, strengthen parishes and ultimately recruit more Catholics through evangelization.
“If the goal is to evangelize ... then the (Nativity Prep) school probably represents one of the finest opportunities for that,” said Jay Smith, a member of the Immaculate Conception finance committee who has served as co-chairman of the Salem Parish Task Force, which is working on the new pastoral plan. “For us not to support that just does not make sense.”
The Nativity Prep proposal was spearheaded by Barry Hynes, a former Boston city councilor who has helped start Nativity Preps in Boston and New Bedford. He said the Salem school was going to be similar to the middle school in New Bedford, which was founded in 2000 by a group of lay Catholics.
Hynes and other supporters had met with Catholic church leaders on the North Shore and in Boston, and also with Mayor Kim Driscoll and Salem School Superintendent Stephen Russell.
“I’m just kind of disappointed we weren’t able to come to an agreement with them on the building,” Hynes said. “It’s a wonderful location. We could have done a nice job with that building.”
The Nativity Prep proposal faced some opposition on the North Shore, including from a few local church leaders, who reportedly feared the independent Catholic school would take students and resources away from parish schools in this region. Others reportedly raised concerns about a new independent Catholic school opening before Salem’s parish collaborative had a chance to draw its own plans for the future.
Under the Nativity Prep model proposed for Salem, students would go to school for free but both they and their parents would be required to help clean the school and perform other duties. The school would have 15 students in a grade who would be required to wear shirts and ties and attend school from 7:30 a.m. until dinnertime. Students would return in the evening for a mandatory study period.
The school would hire a principal, but would be staffed by a “volunteer” faculty of recent college graduates who would receive a small weekly stipend, room and board and health insurance, according to school backers.
“I think there would have been a lot of local support,” said Lucy Corchado, president of The Point Neighborhood Association.
While conceding there were a “lot of unknowns,” Corchado said it was an appealing concept. “Here’s an opportunity for low-income, under-privileged kids to get a private education for free, and for (the Archdiocese) to kind of turn that down was surprising to me.”
Tom Dalton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.