NORTH ARLINGTON — Three days after officials from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Newark announced, via email, that Queen of Peace High School would shut its doors for good at the end of the current academic year, the Rev. Michael Donovan, president of the school (and pastor of the parish) addressed the concerns of parents, teachers, staff and alumni in a meeting at QP Church.
More than 100 people with all sorts of connections to the school attended the meeting — and most didn’t want to hear what Donovan had to say. Instead, they wanted to express their anger and frustration that one year after nearly $1.5 million was raised to keep the school open this year, it was instead closing June 30.
At the meeting, Donovan kicked things off explaining why the school was closing. Perhaps most shocking — the school could have remained open another year, but Donovan said he recommended the school be closed at the end of this academic year, rather than delaying the inevitable.
But before he could even explain that, chaos erupted just four minutes into the meeting when the pastor threw a cameraman form a local TV station out of the church.
“You can’t film in here,” Donovan told the cameraman. “You can film outside afterward, but you can’t film in here. I’m sorry.”
Moments later, several parents screamed from their seats: “Why can’t he stay?”
Donovan said it’s the policy of the Archdiocese of Newark that filming is prohibited inside churches and in the presence of minors.
“Then move the meeting to the high school,” another parent screamed.
The meeting wasn’t moved — and after a back and forth between two parents, at a feverish pitch, things calmed down a bit.
It was at this point Donovan explained why he decided not to keep the school open, despite the archdiocese giving him the OK to do so for at least one more year.
“With a reduction in financial aid and an increase in tuition, we’d be stretching the dollar more and more,” he said. “So in the April meeting with the archdiocese, the superintendent made the proposal that what we will do — what the archdiocese will do — is to allow Queen of Peace High School to stay open next year. (They said) ‘we’ll fund the deficit this coming year. However, at the end of the year, unless things dramatically change, the school closes.’
“But I spoke up — it was my obligation — and I said we can’t go along with that. There’s a 98% chance the school is going to close next year. And the kids coming back to the building (in September 2017)will have no idea whatsoever that’s possible. So we’re going to be lying to our parents, our teachers, our transfer students, the freshmen … everyone. And I said ‘I just don’t think that’s fair … and I don’t think it’s just.’ So I said ‘I can’t go along with that proposal.’ With that, the decision was made the school was going to close at the end of the school year.”
For most, that response wasn’t acceptable.
One parent went on to ask whether there was any discussion about merging QPHS with St. Mary High School, of Rutherford. Donovan said he proposed it to the pastor of St. Mary parish, but ultimately, parishioners there shot down the concept.
“They’re a little, let’s say, different there,” Donovan said. “They’re not like us here. They’re a little on the uppity side. And they decided they didn’t want the merger. And the pastor there couldn’t upset his parishioners, so a merger wasn’t ever really an option.”
Later on in the meeting, an alumnus from the QPHS class of 2005 took to the microphone and caught Donovan off guard. He said in a one-on-one chat last summer, Donovan told him the school would remain open for at least two years.
“I’ve been a parishioner for 30 years. Father, you don’t want to be here tonight. In fact, you don’t want this job at all,” he said. “When I first met you, the first conversation we had, you told me you were happy at your other parish and told me you wanted to retire out of there. You did not want to take on this burden.
“You were ordered to come here by the archdiocese … you have made it very clear in the course of the past year you did not want to do this job. You did not want to save this school. You made that abundantly clear; however, that is not acceptable. And as a result, I must demand your resignation as pastor of the parish.”
While the audience thunderously applauded, Donovan said: “I don’t remember the conversation, but I am sure it did happen.”
As the audience jeered, Donovan replied: “I am a priest, show me some respect. As pastor, chaplain to the grammar school and at the high school, I put in, I’d say, 80 to 90 hours a week. I’ve worked to the best of my ability to keep this school open. So don’t tell me I don’t want to be here. I’ve tried my best.”
Later on, toward the end of the meeting, John Tonero, principal of QPHS, took to the mic. He said he was most shocked that he found out about the school’s closure just as everyone else did — via a press release.
“If Jesus was in this room, what would he want us to do right now?” Tonero asked. “What do you think he’d want us to do? Because we have a mission to evangelize. How can I ask you to go anywhere else? I believe that this decision … I was at a meeting two weeks ago and the superintendent said, “How many of you are in favor of giving Queen of Peace another year? There were about 20 in the room. Only one person said ‘no,’ … and Father Mike said he had his reservations.
“And the superintendent looked at me and said: ‘John, you’re going to need to understand … if we give you this year, when we come back to this table next year, you’re going to have to be in a better financial situation. And I said ‘I accept that challenge,’ only to find out that between two weeks ago and Monday (May 8), all of that changed. And I don’t understand it. If we’re given the opportunity, the alumni association has quite a track record. And I believe in miracles — QPHS has to stay open for 2017-2018.
“Now I’m a big boy, and I can handle a lot. But when I am shown disrespect, my students are shown disrespect. My parents are shown disrespect. And I was shown tremendous disrespect on Monday because as principal of QPHS, I went to a meeting where I thought we were going to be talking about what the expectations were for Queen of Peace High School next year. And they passed out a document — and it was a press release about the closing of QPHS. I’m the principal! I don’t even know about it! How is this professional?
Meanwhile, there will be a high school information night Tuesday, May 17 from 6 to 8:30 p.m., in the school gymnasium. Representatives from various Catholic schools of the archdiocese will be in attendance to provide information and assistance in registering QP students for the following academic year.