A Jan. 21 letter sent to St. Rose of Lima School parents about the departure of the school’s nuns has so upset some that a group has posted an online petition to keep the principal and five other sisters at the Miami Shores Catholic school.
The petition, asking the Archdiocese of Miami “to do everything possible to keep the IHM [Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary] Sisters at St. Rose School,” has been signed by more than 500 parents, alumni, grandparents and others. A Facebook page, Show Your Support for Our St. Rose IHM Sisters, has also been created.
Angry parents say their pastor, the Rev. Pedro Corces, wants to replace Principal Sister Bernadette Keane with a lay person. The religious order, which has been at the pre-K-through-eighth-grade school since 1981, is expected to leave at the end of the school year in June. Their departure, some parents claim, could compromise the quality of the school, which has been a fixture in the Northeast Miami-Dade community since 1951.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that the direction of the school will be quite different after the nuns leave,” said Salvador Barreiros, one of the parents who launched the petition. Barreiros, who is also treasurer of the Home and School Association, has two children in the school, but he made it clear he is not speaking for the parents’ association.
Corces would not comment for this story. His secretary referred to a statement he posted on St. Rose’s website in which he wrote that the school community was “deeply grateful for the education, leadership and ministry that the Sisters have offered in St. Rose of Lima School for 35 years. They have been a remarkable gift to us here at St. Rose and leave a legacy of the highest standard of excellence of Catholic education. It is now our responsibility to continue their good work for our present and future students.”
A woman in Keane’s office also said the principal would not comment.
The administration’s reticence has prompted some parents to question the pastor’s, and even the archdiocese’s, motives. “I think the official line is they’re withdrawing from the school because of staffing problems,” said Jai Koch, vice president of the Home and School Association and a mother of a sixth-grader and an eighth-grader. “But all is not what it appears to be.”
Keane’s letter to parents last week stated that while the order has been working with Catholic schools for many decades, “at this time we do not have the number of sisters needed to staff the schools we are presently serving.”
Sister Marie Roseanne Bonfini, a spokeswoman at the religious order’s headquarters in Pennsylvania, confirmed that a staffing issue determined the nuns’ withdrawal from St. Rose of Lima. She said the number of nuns had shrunk to 750 from a high of 2,500. Of those 750 sisters, 200 are too old or infirmed to work.
“The decision to withdraw was exclusively the congregation’s,” she said in a telephone interview. “We would love to stay, but our personnel is shrinking and we have to make hard decisions of what is best for the sisters and what is best for the schools. There is no hidden agenda.”
Bonfini said IHM is withdrawing from three other schools — in Connecticut, New Jersey and Virginia — as well as leaving Chile altogether.
“It’s painful, very, very painful,” she added, “and we know this is upsetting for the community. But we want this to end peacefully and for the parents to calm down.”
Barreiros, however, said his conversations with both Keane and Corces paint a more nuanced picture. When he asked the principal about the nuns’ departure, she told him, “Talk to your pastor.” He did. During a lengthy conversation, Barreiros said Corces said he wanted a lay person as principal and because of this, IHM had chosen to leave. Corces also told Barreiros that he had asked for some of the nuns to remain at the school, but the IHM order had refused.
The IHM sisters also help staff two other South Florida schools, Epiphany Catholic School and the all-girls Our Lady of Lourdes Academy, both in Southwest Miami-Dade. Neither has been affected.
The withdrawal of the IHM sisters from St. Rose of Lima underscores a national crisis within U.S. Catholic religious orders. Without enough new novitiates, the ranks of women religious are thinning. The total number of nuns in the United States has declined steeply, from about 180,000 in 1965 to about 50,000 in 2014 — a 72 percent drop, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. (Though the number of priests also has fallen over that period, from 59,000 to 38,000, the rate has been much slower.)
Archdiocese spokeswoman Mary Ross Agosta said the archdiocese was aware of the parents’ concerns but that the matter was strictly a school/parish decision.
“I truly understand the sentimentality of these parents,” she said. “There are some second- and third-generation parents there, but the sisters answer to their mother superior.”
She added that only a handful of about 60 parochial schools in the archdiocese still have nuns on staff.
Parents remain skeptical. They point to a memo sent by Lisa Pinto, a human resources administrator at the archdiocese, and made available to the Miami Herald, that asks school staff to focus on the mission of the school and “the needs of the students to see unity and harmony among the leadership.” The email goes on to encourage the staff not to engage “in rash judgment, detraction, calumny or worse” and “not post opinions on social media that foster anger against the pastor or undermine his authority.”
Some parents also say the announcement of the nuns’ departure could have been handled better and that their input should have been part of the process. Some privately blame a conflict between the pastor and the principal for contributing to the IHM’s decision to pull out of the school.
Others expressed their appreciation of the nuns’ devotion to the children and their tireless work at the school, but a few were also more specific about what the community should do to demonstrate its dissatisfaction.
“The Parishioners and Parents can express their disapproval of the recent decision to withdraw the IHM nuns from St. Rose of Lima by withholding all church offerings and school support payments,” Richard Normandy posted on Facebook. “A clear message must be sent by those of us that value the nuns’ contributions and continued service to the parish and school. Boycott the collection basket. Send a message this Sunday and every Sunday until the Pastor and Archbishop begin to understand the gravity of their decision.”
One parent suggested using a scheduled Feb. 9 meeting as a forum to air differences. “Why not make this meeting a ‘town hall’ where we seek answers to our questions?” she wrote. “As long as all parents are supposed to be there maybe we can get answers from the Archdiocese, Padre Pedro, the Sisters etc.”
Some signees of the petition did not seem to know — or believe — that IHM’s motherhouse had recalled its nuns willingly. C.J. Paulsen wrote, “We are a founding family of the Parish with over 10 alumni who have passed through the halls starting from 1951 to as recently as 2011. We are shocked and perplexed to learn of the decision to [remove] the sisters. Our community, indeed, our country should not yield to the forces of change that diminishes the core values we strived so hard to pass along. Please reconsider this decision.”