PORTLAND — Students and alumni of Catherine McAuley High School expressed varying opinions after the announcement Oct. 14 that the school will become independent of religious sponsorship.

McAuley, the state’s only single-gender college preparatory school, announced it will become independent of the Rhode Island-based Sisters of Mercy Northeast Community, a religious institute of Catholic women. The school was named after the organization’s founder in 1969.

Martha Hall, who graduated from the high school in 1983 and now lives in Boston, said she had concerns that McAuley now could become more of an elitist school that few can afford.

“Catholic schools traditionally don’t have as high a tuition as other private schools,” Hall said.

Katie La Storia, Hall’s cousin who graduated in 1987, said it was “quite unfortunate” that McAuley is becoming independent, because the Sisters of Mercy “always provided a quite solid education for girls.”

“I don’t really understand what the school’s motivation is in becoming independent,” she said.

Danielle Guibord, a senior at McAuley, said while she was surprised when she heard the news, she is optimistic about the school’s future.

“I think this shift will not change many of the things we love about the school,” Guibord said, including traditions and standards of courage and academic excellence. She said the decision will help “reach all girls” in the greater Portland area.

She said from what she has heard from other students, there is optimism surrounding the decision. She said girls at other schools who may have been put off by McAuley because of its religious affiliation – whether they practiced a different religion or were simply reluctant to go to an affiliated school – may become more interested.

“I think it will do well to break down those barriers,” Guibord said. 

La Storia, who lives in New York, said she’s not sure what the future will hold for McAuley when it is no longer administered by the Sisters of Mercy.

“My main concern is that the quality of education may not be as high as it had been previously, ” she said. “I think the sisters were very supportive of McAuley.”

Kathryn Barr, McAuley’s head of school, said the board of tTrustees and the Sisters of Mercy began discussions about the school becoming independent about six months ago, but the discussions became “more serious” over the summer.

Barr said one of the driving factors was simply the feeling the school “could move forward the best and quickest” independently. She added another catalyst was that the Sisters of Mercy are selling the school property, and there was a preference to move to local governance.

“The board ultimately decided to become independent,” Barr said.

The change will take affect July 1, 2016. The school at 631 Stevens Ave. leases the property and pays rent to the Sisters of Mercy. Barr said once the land is sold, McAuley will pay rent to Sea Coast Management Co., which has an agreement with the Sisters of Mercy to purchase the property that expires June 30, 2016.

Barr said she and others are looking forward to having an “inter-generational” campus, since Sea Coast’s plan is to develop the 19 acres into about 250 residential units for people 55 and older.

“We love our campus, and we think they will be great partners,” Barr said.

Hall said while she is not a practicing Catholic, she hopes the school keeps core values like compassion and tolerance, no matter how the school is funded.

The school is also exploring a partnership with the University of New England, which has a campus not far away.

Barr said McAuley and the president of UNE began conversations about such a partnership a year ago. She said this is “the very beginning of a very exciting initiative” that would allow students to get college credits from UNE for some McAuley courses, and would therefore reduce the number of courses students who go on to attend UNE would have to take.

“The sky’s the limit,” Barr said. 

In a press release on Oct. 14, Bishop Robert Deeley of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, said he was “saddened to learn of the change in sponsorship status” of McAuley.

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

The Rev. George Collins, president of Cheverus High School, issued a statement the day after McAuley’s announcement, thanking the Sisters of Mercy for their service to McAuley.

“We extend our support to the students, faculty and staff, administration, and board of trustees at Catherine McAuley High School and look forward to their continued success as they become an independent, non-sectarian, values-based school,” Collins said in the release.

Cheverus is an independent, Catholic high school. It was originally an all-male school, but became coeducational in 2000.

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

Catherine McAuley High School, the all-girl, Catholic school at 631 Stevens Ave. in Portland, announced it would become independent of of the sponsoring Sisters of Mercy effective July 1, 2016.

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