Declining enrollment has been forcing Catholic schools across the region to shutter, but few closures have been as contentious as the impending demise of Mount Alvernia High School, which sits on 23 acres of prime real estate in Newton.
At the center of the controversy: an aging group of Franciscan sisters who own the land and whose decision to sell the property will force the seventh through 12th grade girls school to close in June.
Some say the move by the Missionary Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Conception came out of the blue, raising questions from students, parents, and alumnae about who might be advising them and who wants the real estate.
The land, by some estimates, is worth more than $40 million, and Boston College ― whose Newton campus is across the street ― has emerged as a prospective buyer. Only 11 sisters live in the convent adjacent to the school, both located on bucolic grounds centered around a chapel.
“What I’m seeing is sacrificing the future of young women who love a school for the almighty dollar. It’s unacceptable,” said state Senator Mike Rush, whose 12-year-old daughter, Ciara, is a seventh-grader at Mount Alvernia. “It reeks of Judas Iscariot willing to turn in Jesus for silver.”
While the sisters founded the high school, they no longer run it. The board only learned about the potential sale in January, which set in motion a Hail Mary attempt to orchestrate an alternative deal to save the school.
Newton Country Day School, another all-girls Catholic institution across the street from Mount Alvernia, offered to pay for the property in cash at market value, according to a person who was briefed on the matter and requested anonymity.
The Newton Country board made clear to the sisters that it had the resources to make the purchase ― a $50 million endowment it could tap into.
Newton Country could also offer something money can’t buy: compassion. It promised to absorb whoever among the 135 students wished to remain at Mount Alvernia, as well as to preserve its chapel and a historical presence that dates to 1935. And there would be a plan for the sisters to make an orderly transition to a new home.
But much to the surprise of the Mount Alvernia community, the sisters weren’t interested in the deal. Will Boston College be met with a warmer reception? The sisters remain mum, but BC is making its intentions clear.
In a statement, spokesman Jack Dunn said, “In light of the decision by the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Conception to close Mount Alvernia High School and sell the property, Boston College would be interested in acquiring the land and buildings for its own use, given its proximity to our Newton Campus.”
Little of this makes sense. Why wouldn’t the sisters want to sell the property to another like-minded institution that can carry on the values and tradition of Mount Alvernia? The school pays rent to the sisters — about $8,000 a month — and also maintains and renovates the buildings it uses, according to people with knowledge of the arrangement. But this is no traditional tenant-landlord relationship.
Some sisters have taught theology at the school, which has been at its Centre Street location since 1972. Two sisters sit on the board.
This week, I reached out to the sisters, including Sister Jeanette Gaudet, who serves as the ex-officio president of the Mount Alvernia board, and Sister Marie Puleo, who is part of the general leadership team of the Missionary Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Conception.
In a page-long response to questions, they defended their decision. They wrote that enrollment has been shrinking for 15 years, and the number of sisters living in the convent has also dwindled from 25 in 2018.
According to the sisters, their mission convened a provincewide forum last April to address the declining number of members in the United States. Their median age is 81. The Newton sisters considered their options and determined that holding on to the Centre Street site would be too costly going forward.
“The high school and Sisters are financially interdependent on the Centre Street property, which the Sisters maintain,” according to the letter from the Missionary Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Conception. “Thus, continuing here is financially unsustainable.”
The sisters added that they “have been in confidential conversations with potential buyers, but the property has not been sold.” They did not address why they were not interested in Newton Country Day’s offer. Their parcel sits directly across from both BC and Newton Country Day, making it an ideal location for any expansion plans.
The sisters said they support the board’s decision to form a partnership with Fontbonne Academy, an all-girls Catholic school in Milton, which has extended admission to Mount Alvernia students.
“We recognize the pain the high school’s closing is causing, especially for the present faculty and students,” the sisters wrote.
As at other Catholic schools, enrollment at Mount Alvernia has been on the downswing for years. The current enrollment is about half of what it was two decades ago.
But Mount Alvernia supporters assert that the school’s finances are stable. While the school has lost money, the board has been able to make the numbers work, they say. (Tuition is about $22,000.) What’s more, they say, applications have been trending upward, and the pending closure of St. Joseph Prep Boston, a coed Catholic school in Brighton, would have prompted an influx of new students.
So what does the City of Newton make of a key parcel about to change hands? Typically, it gets a heads up when such real estate transactions are possible, but Mayor Ruthanne Fuller said that was not the case this time.
“This was a well-kept secret,” she said.
According to the Newton planning department, the sisters’ parcel is zoned for educational and institutional uses, as well as for single-family homes. The city estimates that about 33 houses could be built on site. If the zoning were changed to allow other uses — which would require City Council approval — the property could be worth a lot more.
Fuller said she has never met any of the Franciscan sisters and has reached out for a meeting but has not heard back. The mayor said she hopes the future buyer’s plans are compatible with the city and the neighborhood. And while the city and BC are sparring in court over another property, Fuller said she would not oppose the college buying the Centre Street site.
Still, the mayor doesn’t rule out the city itself taking a look at purchasing the land. “If there isn’t a buyer already lined up, I’d be happy to talk to the sisters about the property,” she said.
Many students, families, and alumnae have been in a fighting mood, displaying their anger on Facebook, at demonstrations, and through a petition on Change.org with more than 3,400 signatures to save the school.
Sophie Brennock, 17, and her sister Aisling, 14, sobbed when they found out on March 8 their school was closing. A two-sport athlete, Sophie, a junior, had hoped to captain the soccer team in the fall.
“I feel so bad for you,” Aisling, an eighth-grader, told Sophie, knowing the consequences would be harder for students switching schools just as they were applying to college.
Senior Anna Renehan is grateful that she can graduate from Mount Alvernia, just like her grandmother did 70 years ago. But the closure doesn’t seem fair or warranted, she said.
“It’s truly a shame to see one of the few all-girls Catholic schools be shut down when it doesn’t need to be,” said Anna. “Mount Alvernia gives girls a voice. They teach girls how to use their voice and how important it is to be a woman in this day and age. ... This just goes against all of those teachings that we have learned.”
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.