Metro

Girls high school in ‘Catholic tradition’ to open in Wenham

Mark Lorenz for The Boston Globe
The 1920s era estate in Wenham will become home to The Academy at Penguin Hall.

The stone manor house was built 87 years ago for a Detroit socialite, and named to celebrate the polar exploits of her paramour, Admiral Richard Byrd.

Penguin Hall in Wenham later became a retreat house for nuns, a conference center, and the headquarters of Mullen advertising.

In its newest incarnation, the estate will become The Academy at Penguin Hall, an independent, all-girls high school that will follow the Roman Catholic school tradition of faith, service, and learning.

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A group of North Shore benefactors purchased the 50-acre property on Monday for $10.3 million from James X. Mullen, who moved his ad firm’s headquarters to Boston in 2009.

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In September, Penguin Hall plans to open its heavy wooden doors to girls across Essex County, and welcome students from Nazareth Academy in Wakefield, a tiny all-girls school that plans to join the new school.

The school hopes to enroll at least 100 students in grades 9 through 12, offering a college-prep curriculum. Tuition will be $22,000. The school has launched a website, and is recruiting students and teachers for the 2016-2017 school year.

“There is a need for a faith-based school for girls in Essex County,” said Molly Martins of Wenham, a founder who will serve as the academy’s first president. “We have invited Nazareth to join with us.”

“Our girls are very excited by this new opportunity,” said Phyllis Morrison, the principal at Nazareth.

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Nazareth was formed seven years ago by parents and former staff of Our Lady of Nazareth Academy, an all-girls high school in Wakefield that was operated for 61 years by the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, until its closing in 2009.

The school sent students to Harvard, Boston College, and other top-tier colleges, but also struggled to increase enrollment and to raise money. It now has just 54 students and 12 faculty members, and is based in a rented public school building in Wakefield. “We never really got the traction we needed,” Morrison said.

The New England Association of Schools and Colleges granted accreditation to Nazareth’s college prep curriculum in 2013. Negotiations are underway for the accreditation to be transferred to Penguin Hall, said Joe Luna, chairman of Nazareth’s board of trustees.

“Our accreditation is our strongest asset,” Luna said. “Our hope is that when the new school opens in September, it will be fully accredited.”

But Nazareth, which also follows Catholic tradition, was never recognized by Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of the Archdiocese of Boston.

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A Catholic school is only official if it is approved by the local bishop and operates under the jurisdiction of a diocese’s Catholic schools’ office, according to the National Catholic Education Association.

“Many independent schools don’t have that permission, so they say they operate in ‘the Catholic tradition,’ ” said Sister Dale McDonald, director of public policy and education research at the nonprofit association, based in Arlington, Va.

Terry Donilon, a spokesman for the Boston archdiocese, said the Catholic Schools Office has spoken with the founders of Penguin Hall, but has not yet determined if the school should be recognized.

“There would need to be further review on any number of criteria,” he said. “We appreciate the commitment to Catholic education the group has demonstrated, as well as to the students and families who share in their efforts.”

Penguin Hall will be “rooted in the Catholic tradition” of educating the whole person through intellectual, spiritual, social, and physical development.

Religious education and a vibrant campus ministry will be part of the school’s curriculum and activities.

“We welcome girls from families of all faiths,” said Martins, a former assistant vice president of finance at Emmanuel College, a Catholic institution in Boston.

“We are not recognized by the archdiocese, but we will be respectful” of its standards, Martins said.

While Nazareth struggled to survive, Penguin Hall has the benefit of private financing, Martins said.

She and her husband, Al Martins, a North Shore real estate developer, are key backers of the school.

Penguin Hall had sat vacant for years, after various development proposals, including a senior living complex and a drug rehabilitation facility, failed to materialize.

“Once this property became available,” Molly Martins said of the house surrounded by sweeping lawns and wooded land, “We said, ‘Wouldn’t that be a perfect place for a high school?’”

Kathy McCabe can be reached at Katherine.McCabe@globe-.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKMcCabe.