By Chris Maza
SPRINGFIELD – Patience is a virtue, and one that served the Diocese of Springfield well in its efforts to reach a settlement with the federal government on financial relief to help ensure the future of Cathedral High School.
Bishop Timothy McDonnell was joined by Rep. Richard Neal, Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno and Federal Emergency Management Agency Region 1 Acting Regional (FEMA) Administrator Paul Ford on March 3 in front of Cathedral’s main entrance to announce an agreement of more than $38 million that will allow for the rebuilding of the high school, as well as the St. Michael’s Academy middle school and preschool at their permanent home on Surrey Road.
“We now have the brick and mortar funds to rebuild here on Surrey Road and so we shall,” McDonnell said, drawing thankful gasps, then applause from approximately 30 people gathered behind the press during the announcement.
The diocese and FEMA agreed on a total fixed estimate of the project of $29.4 million. FEMA will provide 75 percent of the funding for the project and the diocese will take on the remainder of the cost. FEMA will also provide $9 million in reimbursements for equipment, emergency site safety, security work, and temporary school facilities.
In addition to the federal funding, the diocese reached a $59.9 million settlement with its insurance carrier, Catholic Mutual, on Sept. 10, 2013 after long and public battle regarding the school, which was heavily damaged by the EF-3 tornado that tore through Springfield on June 1, 2011.
Since the storm, students have attended classes in the high school’s temporary home at the old Memorial School in Wilbraham, which the diocese rents from the town at a cost of $365,550 per year. The school currently has a one-year lease that was signed in June 2013 with a pair of one-year options.
Ford explained that the Sandy Recovery Improvement Act of 2013, which authorized changes in the way FEMA issues disaster relief funds, improved the amount of money that was available to the schools and the city in its recovery efforts.
In celebration of the announcement, McDonnell proclaimed, “God be praised. To those three words, I’ll add three more – patience, gratitude and trust.”
He acknowledged the “patience and persistence” of leaders of the school and diocese and political leaders as well as alumni and current families attending the schools, likening the situation to Aesop’s “The Tortoise and the Hare.” He also expressed gratitude to all, including Neal “for the support and encouragement he provided during this long process and for his own patience in seeing it through.”
McDonnell later told Reminder Publications that the appeals of many Cathedral supporters to reopen the school at its current site quickly did not go unheard, and while he understood the anxiety, without the diligence and hard work that brought forth the agreement with FEMA, the school may not have been able to open at all.
“Patience is a virtue, but you know, virtues aren’t always easy,” he said. “Everybody’s hope was that this would come into being as fast as possible, however we discovered that this was one of those ‘Tortoise and Hare’ situations where if we had gone much faster, we wouldn’t have had today’s announcement. By being patient, by dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s, we were able to come to this announcement and now that we know the dollar amount that’s available, we can go ahead and put that into the bricks and mortar that will give us a new school.”
Neal echoed the bishop’s sentiments, explaining that a very careful and well-thought out process was utilized in order to determine what a proper settlement figure would be.
“The idea that we were going to guess a number and then apply it to the taxpayer was preposterous,” he said. “The same people who would be advocating for that would then be saying then the bill came due, ‘Why had they not been more vigilant in overseeing the expenditure?’”
Addressing the trust aspect of his proclamation, McDonnell said while the brick and mortar of the building were important, he called upon alumni of the school to aid in the collection for the Cathedral High School Tuition Endowment Fund that would allow the diocese to offer financial aid and scholarships in order to keep enrollment strong. Due to regulations regarding federal funding and the recent insurance settlement, none of those monies can be utilized for this purpose.
“The real future of Cathedral High School is being entrusted to those who have benefited from it in the past,” he said. “The building will go up; more important than the building, however, are the students yet to enter its halls. I’m trusting those who have benefited from a Cathedral education in the past to ensure that students for generations to come will be able to afford a Cathedral High School education.”
McDonnell and Sarno both acknowledged Donald and Michelle D’Amour with kicking off the collection with a sizeable donation.
Neal, a former Springfield mayor who also taught history and government at Cathedral, called the announcement an historic milestone for the city as it continues to recover from the widespread damage inflected upon it in 2011.
“This is a moment of certainty,” he said, adding that several times in private conversation, McDonnell stressed to him, “I want to rebuild on [this] site.”
Sarno, whose daughters attend Cathedral High School and St. Michael’s academy, called the high school “a stronghold in East Forest Park and the city of Springfield” and said the trials that have faced the school and the city have brought out the best characteristics of their community members.
“With storm clouds comes opportunity and with adversity comes character,” he said. “I know there have been some trying times, but we are now moving forward.”
McDonnell said demolition would begin “as soon as the permits come through,” but was non-committal on a timeline for reconstruction, explaining that the project was still in the conceptualization stage and now that there was a budget framework, plans could be solidified. He added that while there were no definitive plans, it appeared the school would be rebuilt as opposed to renovated.
“The concept seems to be pushing us more toward a brand new building. As that gets refined and the plans get drawn, we’ll see what happens,” he said.
Ford said the schools would be built in an “efficient and effective manner.”