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Once-embattled Brighton school reborn as community center

GLOBE STAFF PHOTOS BY SUZANNE KREITER

In the Little Sprouts daycare, Moukthika Nakerakanti gets ready for nap time.

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

“It was about bringing programs and services to a neighborhood,’’ board member Kevin Carragee said.

“Happiness Is Our Intention,” reads a sign inside the signature brick walls of what was once Our Lady of the Presentation School in Brighton’s Oak Square.

Fresh paint adorns classrooms built in the 1920s. Original wood floors gleam with refinishing. And an entrance lobby, the only new addition to the school’s exterior, has been partially built of blackboards that once helped educate generations of students there.

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Nearly seven years after the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston caused a firestorm by locking out students two days before the K-6 school was scheduled to be closed, a scrappy grass-roots group that transformed the landmark into a community center is prepping for the building’s coming-out party.

Following a $5.4 million renovation, the Presentation School Foundation Community Center will open to the public next Friday to unveil what once seemed a pipe dream: a neighborhood anchor designed to serve Brighton and Allston residents from infancy to retirement.

“There were moments certainly where we were close to organizational death,’’ said Kevin Carragee, a foundation board member. “One way to describe the volunteers is that they’re a very stubborn group of people.’’

That stubbornness was forged in the contentious aftermath of the archdiocese’s decision to close the school. Although opposition helped postpone the closing for a year, to June 2005, the archdiocese infuriated parents by canceling the final two days of classes in 2005 and locking students out, ostensibly to prevent its occupation by protesters.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who seven years ago assailed the early closing as “reprehensible,’’ offered the use of Faneuil Hall for the sixth-grade graduation.

Negotiations with the archdiocese were often difficult over the ensuing 16 months, Carragee recalled, but the church’s offer to sell the building for $1 million, instead of the $2 million the foundation had proposed, helped save the effort.

“The Archdiocese is thrilled for the Presentation School Foundation at this wonderful milestone,’’ said Terrence Donilon, an archdiocese spokesman. “They have worked incredibly hard to accomplish their goal of establishing a community center, and we are pleased to have had the privilege to work with them.’’

Benefactors have included the state, which provided $1.25 million in historic tax credits; the City of Boston, $501,000; the New Balance Foundation, $550,000; the Boston Foundation, $200,000; and 15 other foundations. Residents and businesses in Brighton and Allston contributed $325,000.

“We’re essentially a trustee for the folks who live in the neighborhood,’’ Carragee said. “There is a sense of ownership of the building. It was widely believed in the neighborhood that this would have been a condo.’’

Instead, what has emerged is a meticulously restored and upgraded building that Susan Wobst, the center’s acting executive director, said will meet the demands of the present but have the flexibility to adapt.

“This was never about a renovation project; it was about bringing programs and services to a neighborhood,’’ Carragee said.

Services include an early education center, which opened in November; a Women, Infants, and Children program affiliated with St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center; meeting space for civic groups; an after-school program; and immigrant outreach.

Bricks have been repointed; a roof that recalls the original Spanish tile has been laid; and the large front door, once boarded over, has been restored to its stately, original presence.

These nods to the past should resonate in the community, which Katherine Mackland-Rivera, executive director of the Little Sprouts early-education center, called close-knit, involved, and invested in the center’s success.

“We need to give people reasons to stay, and this is a reason to stay’’ in the neighborhood, Carragee said. “Parents who went to the school now have children in the preschool.’’

Many of those parents, along with others from the neighborhood, volunteered a “staggering’’ number of hours to aid the renovation, Carragee said.

Nestled amid the gleaming result will be a reminder of what led to the Presentation’s new life. On a first-floor wall, in what will become a community meeting space, the words “Congratulations to the pre-K children’’ will remain in colorful script.

That message, preserved since 2005, was meant to cheer the children who were ousted from their school two days early.

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at macquarrie@globe.com.
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