New name for Catholic school draws ire, concerns

St. Francis Assisi school will be the site of the new St. Theresa School. PHOTO BY LARAINE WESCHLER

T-H-E-R-E-S-A could spell “disaster” for Catholic education in Naugatuck, according to a group opposed to the proposed name for the new, merged Catholic school in the borough.

The Archdiocese of Hartford announced earlier this month it would combine St. Francis and St. Hedwig Schools next school year. The new school will be renamed St. Theresa and housed in the St. Francis building. Declining enrollment and the loss of subsidies from St. Francis parish next year put both schools in financial peril and proved to be the catalyst for the merger.

While parents and alumni of the schools welcome the necessary merger, they object to the name change, which they say was made unilaterally, without their consultation.

The Archdiocese, in an official statement, said the name St. Theresa emerged as a result of a comprehensive consultation process involving key constituencies, including parents, school boards, alumni committees, parishioners and pastors.

“The overriding opinion of these parties was that the name be changed, in an effort to dismiss any perceived partisanship toward one school over another. Based on this input, a new name was given careful and thoughtful consideration, and St. Theresa was chosen,” the statement read.

Rev. Michael Slusz, pastor of St. Francis church, said name represents “a new start” and should eliminate segregation between the two schools.

“I know the name has changed, but the most important thing here is the Catholic education of our children,” Slusz said. “I hope that alumni from St. Francis and St. Hedwig will rally behind the school.”

An alumni group on Facebook urged members to call, email, and write letters to the Catholic schools superintendent to voice their opposition to the name change.

They prefer the name reportedly approved by the school boards, “St. Francis St. Hedwig Catholic Academy of Naugatuck,” which they say preserves this history of the two schools.

Maria Zone, spokesperson for the Archdiocese, said she’s only gotten two phone calls on the subject.

“I can’t speak for anybody else,” she said.

However, numerous people posted copies of letters they wrote on the Facebook page.

“The combination of names would reflect the strength that will be gained by such a union,” wrote St. Francis alum Dorothy Hoff.

Hoff, like many other concerned alumni, was worried that the institutions’ history would disappear like so many other relics of Naugatuck.

“In the last couple of weeks, residents have sadly watched the demolition of the Peter Paul factory, which was acquired by Hershey, only to move all operations out of state. Particularly during these difficult economic times, Naugatuck struggles to maintain hope for a recovery. A further loss of identity would cause additional damage to our besieged community spirit,” wrote Hoff.

The name change might pose a legal problem for the St. Francis School Foundation as well, which has donated over $1 million to the school since 1980.

“If there is a change in the name of the school, under our bylaws, the money cannot be used until a period down the road,” John Geary, president of St. Francis School Foundation Inc., said.

Although he wouldn’t name an exact figure, Geary said the foundation has “a high six-figure number” in their present portfolio. If the words “St. Francis” are taken from the school’s name, that money will be frozen in a trust fund for the next five years, before being transferred back to the parish.

“The bottom line is we want to continue to support St. Francis School in the future,” he said.

Geary’s not the only one alarmed by the potential loss of the school’s endowment.

“In a nutshell, our concern is, what happens if they loose that foundation money and they have to close those schools down,” said Charlie Marenghi, vice president of the Naugatuck Teacher’s League.

With the Board of Education hoping to achieve a zero growth budget, the possible influx of 150 to 200 children into the school system could be a financial disaster, Marenghi said.

“That’s a perfect storm that could cause a disaster in our public school system,” Marenghi said.

He said what happens at St. Francis will have a ripple effect throughout Naugatuck.

“I don’t see any logical way that they could run that school without that foundation money,” Marenghi said.

Besides the loss of money already donated by alumni, some are worried that without the emotional connection with the name of the school, alumni would be less likely to donate to the combined school in the future.

“To me, it would be like renaming the empire state building,” said Tim Barth, former mayor and graduate of St. Francis.

The name has meaning to thousands of families, Barth said.

“I also believe it will definitely impact future funding for the school,” Barth said.

Barth said other members of his family who donate to the school were not in favor of the name change.

“Anything you do to make it more difficult to raise money, I think, is wrong,” said David W. Rogers Jr., a fourth-generation St. Francis alumnus who lives in the borough. “In my opinion, what they’re doing is alienating alumni from two schools, instead of pooling the resources of two schools and the financial strength of two schools.”

The Republican-American contributed to this report.