It feels like a pipe dream. It feels like a long shot. It feels like grasping at straws.
It feels like a potential answer to prayers.
Hope still remains for the future of Lebanon Catholic School.
LCS’s hope has a name, and it goes by Joya and Tom Morrissey. The Lebanon-area couple has devised a plan to save Lebanon Catholic, or at least Catholic education in Lebanon County.
The plan involves a bold purchase; the support of, for, and from a passionate community; and a lot of faith. While it may be its final hope, at this point, Lebanon Catholic will take any it can get.
The Morrisseys, a pair of local entrepreneurs who practice the Catholic faith, have made an offer to purchase the former Lebanon Catholic School building at 1400 Chestnut Street in Lebanon. According to Joya Morrissey, the offer, which was submitted about five days ago, is below the Diocese of Harrisburg’s asking price of $2.47 million for the building.
On April 28, the Diocese of Harrisburg announced the closing of the 161-year-old Lebanon Catholic School at the end of the 2019-20 school year, due to years of financial struggles, some of which were related to decreased enrollment, local parishes’ reluctance to continue their financial support, and the budgetary impact of the coronavirus pandemic. It is believed that the former Lebanon Catholic School is about $2.3 million in debt.
“I went to St. Mary’s (on Willow Street) until I was in the fifth grade, then I had to go to public school,” said Joya Morrissey, a board member for the former Lebanon Catholic School and the president of the formation board for the new, as of yet unnamed, school. “I never went to school in the Lebanon Catholic building. I don’t have the emotional ties to it, but I see it. I was raised Catholic, my husband Tom converted, and hopefully my son will graduate from there. I would like to think if I didn’t have a son there, I’d still want to save the school. A priest told me that for every 24 funerals, there’s one baptism. That tells me the future is these children. I can’t let that go.
“The worst has already happened,” said Morrissey. “Our school closed. We can only go up from here. Either we’re successful and we can move forward or we’re just staying closed.”
Morrissey said that should the deal go through, the proposed school’s name would not bear the word ‘Catholic’, but that the plan has been approved by the Harrisburg Diocese and Bishop Ronald Gainer, and the majority of the parishes that make up the Lebanon Deanery. Depending upon the timing of the possible sale, the school would offer Catholic-based education, be housed in the former Lebanon Catholic building, and could be ready for the start of the 2020-21 academic year, though courses in the beginning of the semester could be conducted virtually.
If the purchase was successful, the Morrisseys would serve as only landlords and the school would become their tenant. In that case, Joya Morrissey would step down as the president of the new school’s board.
“We’re not going to make any money off of it,” said Joya Morrissey. “We just want to pay the bill. We’re not going to own this building forever. Hopefully at the end of a five-year term we’ll be able to sell the building to the school. There were a few different ways it could be structured. We have a great collection of people on the board who are experts in their own fields.
“We did want to get the blessing of the diocese and the Bishop,” Morrissey continued. “It was important, and we did get it, as an independent school. We can still teach in the Catholic tradition, we just can’t use the Catholic name. We have the support of the diocese, the Bishop, and the majority of (local) priests.”
But time is of the essence.
Morrissey said that the proposed school’s board has set an informal deadline for the 2020-21 school year, which is set to begin in late August. Former Lebanon Catholic staff and students are currently making alternative plans for the upcoming year.
“We put out a fairly involved survey,” said Morrissey, of the families of the former Lebanon Catholic School. “Some of the questions we asked were, ‘Should we look at another property? What will you do with your children in the fall? Send them to public school? Private school?’ We could clearly see parents were willing to sell their homes and move to give their children a Catholic education. ‘Would you be willing to have your children attend a virtual school at the beginning of next year?’ It was a resounding, ‘Yes.’
“People wanted to see the school continue in that building,” continued Morrissey. “When I saw that, I said, ‘That’s what we’ve got to do.’ Somewhat joking around I said to Tom, ‘Do you want to buy a school?’ He said, ‘Are you serious?’ I said, ‘I’m sort of serious. Someone has to step up. Someone has to buy that building.’ We put together an offer and now we just wait.”
Morrissey said that the new school will be funded almost entirely through tuition and donations from the community. She also said that the new school would need to attract 300 to 330 students to make it work financially, and that Lebanon Catholic’s enrollment at the time of its closing was about 310.
“Tuition would go up, but only slightly and it would still be lower than private schools in the area,” said Morrissey. “Realistically, we need a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ from the diocese as soon as possible. If our families are able to plan, they’re more likely to stay with us. If we have the building, we have to do things, and if we have the building, we can have a school by Christmas. At least our families will know. It’s the not knowing that’s hard.
“When Deb Waters came in as (Lebanon Catholic) principal, she started cutting waste and started prioritizing things differently,” Morrissey continued. “There are different ways things can be done. There were past donors who hadn’t been approached in years. When we did that, we got positive responses. There were little things that made a huge difference in a financial way.”
According to Morrissey, two other parties are also interested in the former Lebanon Catholic building, one of which is the Lebanon School District. The Lebanon school board recently approved plans to study the feasibility of purchasing the building, as a way of providing the school district more space.
“There are a few interested parties,” said Morrissey. “One is the Lebanon School District and they’ve initiated a building study. They have a few more obstacles to place an offer. As a taxpayer in the Lebanon School District, if they submitted an offer of more than the appraised value, I’d want to know why.
“The diocese can hold out and wait,” added Morrissey. “From what I understand, the entity of ‘Lebanon Catholic’ exists until June 30. If I was in a situation where I need to recoup, it’s going to come down to time and money. Knowing what we plan to do with that building, which is continuing their mission, I hope it would help the diocese’s decision.”
Like many of the Lebanon Catholic faithful, Morrissey was shocked and taken aback by the Harrisburg Diocese’s announcement to close Lebanon Catholic two months ago. Since then, the proud and strong Lebanon Catholic community has really dug its heels in and put up a fight.
“My reaction was immediate tears,” said Morrissey. “I felt like someone had died. It was out of our control. It was something you wanted to still be there. It was devastating. The timing was so bad, and there was no closure.
“Our goal from the diocese, in order to stay open for next year, was we needed to be out of the red,” Morrissey added. “And we were pretty deep in the red. But I still didn’t see us closing. That’s why it was such a shock. As a school board, we thought we had met the diocese’s goal and we were moving in the right direction. Seeing the Bishop say those words, you could see it pained him to say it as much as it pained us.”
Morrissey said that if word about their bid isn’t received in the next ten days or so, she would reach out to the diocese again. If the bid isn’t accepted, Catholic education in Lebanon County will have few options remaining.
“If the sale doesn’t go through, I don’t know what will happen,” said Morrissey. “I don’t want to say we put all of our eggs in one basket. But we only have one basket right now. Finding another building doesn’t fit the timeline. This is our only option.
“I don’t even know where we would go from there,” continued Morrissey. “We looked at a few other properties as possibilities, but time is not our friend. This is the only option of a school that’s ready to go. We’re looking at the most effective way to do this in the shortest amount of time.”
Certainly God works in mysterious ways.
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