With declining enrollment and the pending sale of its Portland campus, Catherine McAuley High School is dropping its affiliation with the Roman Catholic Church.

Officials at the state’s only all-girls high school insist that its traditions, from plaid skirts to morning prayers, will remain after it severs ties in July, but students, parents and alumni have mixed feelings about what the change to a non-sectarian school might mean for McAuley’s future.

Since 1969, thousands of young women from southern Maine have attended the school on Stevens Avenue, but in the past 10 years, enrollment has dropped from around 200 students to 120.

Nuns, who once lived on the campus, no longer teach at the school, and their former convent is scheduled for redevelopment into senior housing.

The Sisters of Mercy, who founded the school, are planning to sell the 12-acre site of the campus and convent this year, a plan that initially prompted the school to consider relocating. The developer, however, has agreed to extend the school’s lease, and McAuley plans to remain at the site for at least 25 years.

Head of School Kathryn Barr said Wednesday that becoming an independent school will free the board of trustees from having to report to the Sisters of Mercy’s Northeastern Community in Cumberland, Rhode Island.


“We’ll be able to make more local decisions and work more quickly,” she said, while denying that the governance structure had created any holdups.

Barr also said she hopes that dropping ties to the Catholic church will “open the doors to other girls,” although she didn’t believe the affiliation had hurt enrollment because the school has always welcomed girls from all religious backgrounds.


Davine Grantz, who graduated in 1987, remembers having friends in her class of 72 students who were Jewish, Baptist or not religious at all.

“It was accessible to everyone,” she said.

Grantz worked two jobs, as a baby sitter and at an optometrist’s office, to put herself through McAuley because of what Catholic schooling meant to her. Even though she’s no longer practicing, she said the news Wednesday was devastating.


“The sisters taught you self-respect, kindness, compassion, service to others,” she said. “It was more than just a Catholic all-girls school, it was a way of life.”

Michele Lawless, whose daughter is a junior at McAuley, initially found the news jarring, but hopes the values that the school embodies are too ingrained to go away.

“To be in service to others and community, to walk forward each day in kindness and empathy … that’s deeply woven into, not just the teachings of McAuley, but the living of the community,” she said.

Both Lawless and Grantz believe the change is an attempt to increase enrollment. Grantz fears it’s a first step toward the school becoming coed.

But Heidi Osborn, chairwoman of the board of trustees, insists that’s not the case. She said the decision was based on keeping local control of the school as it launches new initiatives, including a leadership development program, a partnership with the University of New England that allows McAuley students to earn college credits, and the incorporation of art and religion into its STEM – science, technology engineering and math – program and calling it STREAM.

Osborn said the Sisters of Mercy were restructuring their organization and control of the school was headed to their national office.


“We think it’s best for the girls,” Osborn said of the decision to end the relationship.

Allyson Fournier, a freshman from Biddeford, didn’t know much about what the change would mean for McAuley – an announcement to students wasn’t planned until Thursday. But she wasn’t concerned that it would affect her education or the school atmosphere that she loves.

“As long as I can talk about God in school,” she said, having the religious affiliation didn’t matter to her.


Lawless said her daughter also was accepting of the decision, particularly if it would help keep the school open in order to fulfill her dream – to have her own daughter attend.

“I think it’s a growth and sustainability decision,” Lawless said. “I don’t think this was a decision that was made lightly or easily by anybody.”


McAuley, where tuition is $15,500 for the 2015-16 school year, is exempt from filing 990 tax forms with the IRS because of its religious affiliation. Barr said the Sisters of Mercy do not finance the school.

In a statement released Wednesday, the board of trustees and the Sisters of Mercy announced that the school will become independent and non-sectarian as of July 1.

“To best realize their vision and mission, institutions must evolve with the times. Together, McAuley and the Sisters of Mercy have concluded that the school can best continue to serve its students by ending our historical affiliation,” Osborn and Sister Jacqueline Marie Kieslich, president of the Northeast Community of the Sisters of Mercy, said in a joint statement.

Bishop Robert Deeley issued a statement afterward, saying he was saddened by the decision.

“We regret the loss of a Catholic school in our diocese,” he said.

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