July 1, 2008 
Done deal: Parents own Villa


- Parents became the owners of the Villa Augustina yesterday, bucking a national trend of Catholic school closings. 

In a quiet 20-minute ceremony, Carol Barrett, the chairwoman of a new board of directors, signed papers effecting the purchase of the school for $400,000 from the Religious of Jesus and Mary, the order that founded it 90 years ago.

"Driving over here, didn't it feel surreal?" Barrett said as her fellow board members looked on.

Since 2000, more than 150 Catholic elementary, middle and high schools across the country have been shut down every year, according to the National Catholic Education Association. In New Hampshire, St. Albert's School in West Stewartstown closed in 2003 and the St. Michael School in Berlin followed suit last year.

Six months ago, all the signs pointed toward a similar fate for the Villa Augustina School, which has students from pre-kindergarten to eighth grade. In an emotional meeting with parents last December, representatives of the Religious of Jesus and Mary said their order could no longer afford to support the school. The order is also confronted with declining recruitment and an aging membership.

Parents pledged to do everything they could to save the school. "I think if we knew what we were getting into, it might have been overwhelming," Barrett said.

The obstacles were formidable. Parents would need to raise $400,000 to purchase the school and another half million or so for serious repairs, not to mention a litany of other logistical and legal hurdles. "I think we had all promised our children whatever it takes," said Meoghan Cronin, another parent leader. "I think we were imagining bake sales."

Instead they embarked on a major fundraising campaign, which got an early boost around Christmas from an anonymous donor, who fronted $100,000 and offered $200,000 more if parents could match it. By Easter season, they had raised that amount from within the school community.

The journey from near-closure to a school born again was not an easy one, parents said yesterday. "There were times when we were sitting there saying, This isn't going to happen,'" Barrett recalled.

Parents were able to buy the school building and surrounding 33 acres yesterday, thanks to a separate set of donations, including $100,000 again from an anonymous donor and a $100,000 gift from the monks of St. Anselm College. St. Mary's Bank has loaned an additional $200,000 to the St. Claudine Villa Academy, the nonprofit corporation parents established to run the school.

Although the name technically has changed for legal reasons, the school will still be able to refer to itself as the Villa Augustina, according to the terms of the sale.

Now that the sale is official, Barrett is hoping for a bounce in enrollment, which currently is at roughly 180 for next year, down from about 250 this year and more than 300 several years ago. "I think there are still people out there sitting on the fence waiting," Barrett said. "We truly are done. The documents are signed."

Parents want to preserve their heritage with the Religious of Jesus and Mary. Hence the new legal name of the school, taken from St. Claudine Thevenet, who founded the religious order at Lyon, France, in 1818.

The Villa Augustina still will have to forge a new identity as an independent Catholic school -- not affiliated with a religious order or parish and not integrated into the diocesan school system. "For 90 years, we've been an RJM school," Barrett said. "That's how we've identified who we are, but now we're something different."

Yesterday Barrett and her colleagues said they hoped their story would become an inspiration to other Catholic schools in this country that are facing closure.

"A group of committed people can really make incredible things happen," said Todd Fahey, an attorney closely involved in the effort.



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