Nuns to Leave Catholic School, St. Rose of Lima, in Miami Shores; Parents Furious

Every morning, at St. Rose of Lima K-8 Catholic school in Miami Shores, the white-haired principal, Sister Bernadette Keane, can be found in the parking lot, blowing her whistle. "She tells kids to tuck in their shirts," says one mom who asked not to be named. "All the kids are so well-behaved. That's exactly what parents want if they're sending their kids to Catholic school." 

The school, and Keane's leadership, inspires fierce devotion from families. While many Catholic schools around the country folded after the priest sex abuse scandal of the early 2000s, St. Rose weathered the storm. Parents clamor to pay the $8,649 regular annual tuition, plus additional fees, and there's usually a waiting list to get in.

But on Thursday, the school announced that the nuns will be leaving this June. Parents are sad, outraged, and suspicious about what prompted the change. It has become "a really bitter battle," the mom says. "Parents are pissed. Faculty are pissed." 

St. Rose has been staffed by nuns since it opened in 1951. Since 1981, the nuns have come from  a congregation called the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary  (IHM), which has its headquarters — a "mother house" — in Pennsylvania. Currently, there are six nuns who live and work at St. Rose. In addition to the principal, Sister Anna sets up all the computers and servers. Sister Mary Rita teaches math. Others answer phones and teach Sunday school. 

So parents were shocked last Thursday when they received a letter from Keane, saying that due to a shortage of nuns, those serving St. Rose would be leaving.

It was with a "heavy heart," Keane wrote, that she was announcing their departure. “For 170 years, our Congregation has been faithful to the mission of Catholic education in our Catholic schools. However, at this time we do not have the number of sisters needed to staff the schools we are presently serving.”

The mom says that upon hearing the news, "We were all heartbroken." 

Jai Magner Koch, a realtor who is vice president of the Home and School Association and has two children at the school, tells New Times,"The reason why we chose St. Rose Lima was based solely on the fact that they had these loving ladies there... I liked the feeling I got during a visit — the loving manner of the school and the strong sense of community. Countless parents are saying the same thing I'm saying: We chose St. Rose because of the nuns." 

One mom, Nadeje Camy, wrote on Facebook, "These women are selfless, they teach our children humility and other fundamental moral values. Nothing can replace their impact in a young child's life."

But Friday, rumors began swirling, suggesting that the real reason nuns were leaving is because the parish priest, Father Pedro Corces ("Padre Pedro"), who functions as head of both the parish and the school, wanted new blood in the school. 

Salvador M. Barreiros is a banker and parent of two children at the school. He has started a Facebook page to support the nuns. On it, he explained:
- As soon as i heard of and read the letter i went to the school and briefly talked to Sister Bernadette, she as always was very composed and said "Talk to your Pastor"

- Came home to reflect on the letter, my talk with Sister and i decided to return to see if i could speak with Fr Pedro.

- I spoke with Fr Pedro and let him know my thoughts, not only on the decision but also the process and communication of said decision to the school community (personally i feel that a decision of this magnitude should have been made with the input of the school community or at least communicated in a better manner). We had quite a lengthy discussion and finally and for clarity sake i asked very simply "Was this the decision of 1. IHM Order, 2) The Archdiocese or 3) Yourself (Fr. Pedro)". He responded that is his, that he wanted a layperson as Principal and that given this IHM had to leave (he did say he proposed to have a couple Sisters stay, but IHM did not agree)
Barreiros wrote that he called the Miami archdiocese to complain and was told that the office had only learned of the nuns' ousting when the parents did. Then he started the Facebook page with two other parents in hopes that the move can be reconsidered.  

"Everyone is blaming the priest," says one mother. 

"He is not a presence in the school," says Koch, the realtor mom. "You could ask any student at St. Rose if Father Pedro comes to class during school hours. I promise you, they would tell you no." She said losing the nuns "seemed rather sudden" and the stated reasoning seemed "hard to believe." She believed that two other schools Catholic schools in Miami were not losing their nuns. She said that a "gag order" had been placed on staff and that the nuns were taking the "high road" by not discussing it.

This past weekend, St. Rose held its annual carnival, a major fundraiser. Parents wore blue ribbons to support the nuns. 

On the Facebook page, parents aired their grievances: 

Another parent wrote, "If there is a perceived need for this major change, then we as a parish should have been heard before the decision was made. We are a community with strong feelings about the wonderful thing we have going here. And for someone to come in and change that without any prior notification is disheartening."

A former student named Heather Valentine wrote, "My 8th grade report card was withheld from me because my parents owed backed tuition and couldn't afford to pay it... After taking parents' financial hardships out on a child, I would never put my future children in SRL unless it was under a completely different administration and stood for non-monetary values that are supposed to define Catholicism."

Gary Goode wrote of the priest that someone should "drag his ass in here" (to the Facebook conversation) to explain his decision.

Kathleen Heffernan defended the priest, saying that he had been "vilified" and that parents were acting "pathetic," like "sheep." 

Another mother who asked not to be named also tried to temper the emotion. She told New Times, "Those nuns are amazing," she said. "They are sensitive and loving and patient beyond belief. But a lot of parents want the new. A lot complain, 'Nothing ever changes here.' Some people are sad, and some people like the old school. And let me tell you, St. Rose is very old-school. You stand in line. You don't talk in hallways. But a lot of parents want the new, and improved technology, and a younger principal."

She thought that school would be missing something essential with the nuns not visible every day but said that kids could still get a good education. At least two moms believed that of dozens of Catholic schools in Miami, only St. Rose and two others — Epiphany and Lourdes — were run by nuns. 

Parents have started a petition asking the archdiocese to keep the nuns at the school. It had surpassed its goal of 500 signatures Tuesday. Parents say they plan to bring up the matter at a mandatory February 8 meeting about tuition.

"I'm sure tuition's going up because of all the positions we now have to cover" by hiring lay people, one mom said. 

A former student of St. Rose, Rich Robinson, wrote an article about the dustup on his website RiseNews. He says that he called the nuns' mother house in Pennsylvania and spoke with Sister Marie Roseanne Bonfini, director of IHM Information Services. She told him "that she didn’t know the specifics for why the nuns at St. Rose were withdrawing but that they will be gladly used in other roles across their ministry" and  "that the IHM would never have accepted a mission if it couldn’t promise a long-term commitment to the community and that there are many reasons why withdrawal happens — including a lack of qualified personnel and when the parish priest decides to not renew a contract with the order." He wrote that Bonfini was unaware of the letter St. Rose families had received until he gave her a copy. 

But when New Times called today, Bonfini sounded clear: "IHMs are withdrawing, and it was their decision. The parents have to be assured it's nothing that they have done wrong. They feel they are being singled out, but we're going to withdraw from four other places — Virginia, Connecticut, and New Jersey, and other places."

She explained that typically, nuns "serve at the invitation of the church or the school under the direction of the pastor." She said that on January 21, the same day St. Rose families had been informed of the nuns' leaving, Sister Lorraine McGrew, the general superior ("We don't call them Mother Superior anymore") had sent a private letter to Father Corces and to Miami's top Catholic official, Archbishop Thomas Wenski, "saying that we are beginning the process of withdrawal."

Bonfini declined to release a copy of the letter but read a line: "It has been a blessing. We have been nourished and enriched by the association with teachers, staff, children, parents, and parishioners." Bonfini pointed out, "Even though it is we who have served them, it is we who have been enriched." She said Sister McGrew was too busy to speak with a reporter. 

Bonfini explained, "The decision to withdraw is made with great difficulty on our part. We do not like to leave a parish unless it's absolutely necessary. We have so many demands, and thinning resources. Decisions have to be made," she said. "I can say we [now number] 749 sisters — professed sisters — and almost 200 are in the infirmary." Last year, 29 sisters died, but only two joined.  

Typically, she said, "when a contract is set up with an archdiocese, all nuns get the same salary. A stipend is paid from the archdiocese to the nuns' congregation, and from that, "a fund is set up for the convent to maintain sisters in their house, whether they are teaching or in retirement." Sisters "are not paid a salary per se," she explained, but get a monthly allotment to buy things like shampoo, soap, toothpaste, cards, and stamps. "You buy that yourself — and so you go to the dollar store!" she said. "But medicine is taken care of. Food, clothing, stockings — some of us run through stockings. 

"If we don't need it all, which we don't always, we have a fund for the poor. We drop our money in. It's going to needy families, to buy gift cards for families. If you don't need it, it's only taking up space in your drawer." (In contrast, CNN has reported that Archbishop Wenski lives in a $1.38 million six-bedroom, six-bath waterfront home with a tiki hut and pool.) 

Nuns who leave St. Rose, she said, will be put to use on other assignments. She believed they could possibly end up at one of two other Miami catholic schools, but assignments would not be finalized until May.

A sister answering the phone at St. Rose said they were busy and "would prefer not to comment on anything."  

A call to the parish was transferred to Father Corces' voice-mail. His message said he would be off today. 

Two messages left by New Times for the archdiocese were not returned, but in the RiseNews story, a spokesperson said the office "stood by the decision, which it said was made by IHM."

Two people answering calls at Epiphany Catholic School — which also contracts with Sisters IHM — said they did not believe nuns were leaving there. The principal was unavailable and did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment. 

Despite the party line from Catholic officials, Salvatore Barreiros stood by his understanding of events: "There's no better explanation than what I put on the Facebook page. The official statement by the mother house doesn't change anything for us. We're still asking the archdiocese to do everything it can to keep the sisters." He noted that of 500 people who had signed the petition, 220 were kids — nearly 40 percent of the school. 

Still, he feared it was a done deal. "If i was a betting man, I would say that it is not going change." But the purpose of standing up for the nuns was "one, to speak clarity and two, to express support for the sisters." He said that given the choice between a magnet school that had perfect academic programs and the atmosphere created by the nuns at St. Rose, he would pick the latter. "I can teach my kids at home, but the nurturing they get at school is immeasurable and irreplaceable."  

Koch says that at St. Rose, "it looks like someone died. If you were to go the school today, Teachers are crying. Parents are crying. Nuns are crying." 
Even Pope Francis, she said, attested tho the value of nuns when he spoke in New York last year. "He was thanking nuns for their service, and he wondered what the Catholic church would do without the service of these women. We wonder the same thing — what will happen to our school when they leave?" 

Said Bonfini, "I hope they will pick themselves up and continue." She hoped the school families would "heal." 

She also hoped that more young women would join the ranks —- or do good in other ways. "The harvest is great and the labors are few. We're just going to keep praying young people will be inspired to go out there and do something good for the world — show that something good can be done by serving."

But in a future with fewer and fewer nuns, she said, "religious life will take on another form — maybe not what we're used to. But God and his providence will see to it."