May 17, 2012
BRIGHTON, Mass. — For the first time in 6 years, children’s music filled the hallways of the Our Lady of the Presentation School in Brighton as a young man on a guitar sang “The Wheels on the Bus” to a group of babies.
It’s a stark contrast to what took place here in June 2005, when the Boston Archdiocese locked students out of the building 2 days before graduation. The community was outraged. Parents, students and neighbors vehemently protested outside the school, some pitching tents on a tiny patch of lawn across the street in Oak Square.
What to do with an empty school?
While the lockout came as a shock, the closure did not. The year before, the archdiocese announced it was closing some of its parochial schools as part of a cost-savings measure. At the time, there was wide speculation that it was diverting costs to help pay the legal fees associated with the church sex abuse scandal.
When the school shuttered, a group of parents and community activists banded together, forming the Presentation School Foundation, and petitioned the archdiocese to keep the school open. They were denied. So they decided to buy it. After 16 months of negotiations, the foundation bought the building in 2007 for $1 million — half the property’s value at the time.
Then 2008 hit, the economy tanked and fundraising flopped. Still, foundation volunteers like Kevin Carragee managed to raise $4.2 million in the midst of an economic collapse.
“There were severe doubts all along the way and we’ve had more lives than the nine lives of a cat,” said Carragee. “We had moments where we were very close to organizational death.”
A dramatic turnaround
When Greater Boston visited the school in 2010, it was a real do-or-die moment for the foundation. The loans on the property were in default, there was a $750,000 fundraising gap and the building was in shambles: white paint peeling in large swaths from the ceiling, plaster crumbling off the walls and water pooling in the dark and dingy basement.
Two years later, nearly everything has been painstakingly restored to its 1920s glory with a modern-day touch. The windows are energy-efficient, the Spanish-tiled roof a composite replica and the original hardwood floors refinished and gleaming.
Old classrooms are now home to nonprofits including an affordable daycare, St. Elizabeth’s WIC program and a transportation service for the elderly.
“Also, we have community spaces in the building where local groups like the garden club, the Little League, the Girl Scouts will use that will forge a sense of community and keep people in the neighborhood,” said Carragee.
The Presentation loyalists
People like Stephen Ashcraft, who first came to the school as a kindergartener in 1964 and has been here ever since.
“This was a David versus Goliath story — and David won. It’s social justice,” said Ashcraft.
Heartbroken when the school shuttered, he has been doing his small part to keep the building going, cutting the lawn and plowing the snow pro bono for the past 8 years.
“We’re going to get our reward now because the building is complete. That’s our reward — for the community,” said Ashcraft.
Nancy DeRosa’s two daughters were students at the school. She said her youngest daughter was going to celebrate her fifth birthday, cupcakes and all, on the day DeRosa got the call that the doors to the school were locked. The entire family was devastated.
Now her daughters are helping with the grand reopening.
“They’re volunteering their time and looking forward to the educational opportunities that may still be in that building for them,” said DeRosa.
Presentation and the public
The entire project has been a true community effort. Residents and local businesses donated $325,000, the City of Boston gave $501,000 and New Balance gave a whopping $550,000 to the project.
As for those children locked out in 2005, some are in college now. Kevin Carragee hoped they would be inspired by this grassroots success.
“Our hope is that they learn from this and they become active in civic and community life,” said Carragee. “There’s a tremendous sense among the kids … that this was a special time, special people, special thing”
To celebrate, the foundation is throwing a party on Friday, May 18 from 3:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. The event is open to the public.
THE SCHOOL IN 2010