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Turmoil follows school firings

NCR Staff

Archmere Academy, an elite Catholic preparatory school located on a palatial 38-acre estate in Claymont, Del., was in turmoil at the end of April when a corporate executive committee of three Norbertine priests sacked the school’s top four administrators. Two of the officials fired were Norbertines.

The high drama that ensued featured a whiff of palace intrigue with a touch of opera bouffe. Two candlelight vigils protesting the dismissals brought hundreds of students, parents and alumni to the campus, where they paraded through the school grounds reciting the rosary and singing hymns. Sen. Joseph Biden Jr., D-Del., and other alums appealed to Norbertine officials in Rome.

Archmere Academy, a preparatory high school located outside Wilmington, Del., is one of the area’s preeminent Catholic schools. Tuition is $12,800 a year.

Frs. Robert Kelly, John Logan and James Bagnato’s dismissal of the four administrators appears to have sprung from tensions within the Norbertine community based at Archmere. The outcry that followed prompted the abbot general in Rome, Fr. Hermenegild Noyens, to fly to the states to meet with Norbertines in Delaware and nearby Pennsylvania.

Within 24 hours of the abbot general’s arrival, a news release announced the resignation of Kelly as prior of the community in Claymont and the appointment of Fr. Thomas DeWayne, abbot of St. Norbert Abbey in DePere, Wis., as the new administrator of the Delaware Norbertines.

DeWayne promptly reinstated the fired school officials and apologized for the trauma caused to the school community by the firings.

The Norbertines, also called Premonstratensians, are an order of priests and monks that stress community and collegiality and which was founded by St. Norbert in the early 12th century. In 1893, a Norbertine from Holland established an abbey in DePere where the order now operates St. Joseph Priory and St. Norbert College. In 1932, a small group of Norbertines opened Archmere Academy after paying $300,000 for the country estate of John J. Raskob, a successful financier who served as chairman of the board of General Motors and vice president of the DuPont Company. Raskob and his wife, Helena, founded the Raskob Foundation for Catholic Activities, which since 1945 has given over $100 million to the works of the Roman Catholic church around the world.

Between 1916 and 1918, the Raskobs built an Italian Renaissance mansion for themselves and their 12 children called The Patio and a servants’ quarters called Manor Hall. The Patio and Manor Hall served as the original school buildings for the academy, which over the years developed from an all-male institution to a coeducational preparatory school with 480 students enrolled this year.

On April 23, students and faculty at Archmere Academy learned of the ouster of Fr. Timothy Mullen, headmaster of Archmere Academy; Nancy Cooper, dean of studies; Fr. Michael Collins, dean of student life; and Tom Mallon, director of development. Kelly, Logan and Bagnato -- members of an executive committee that administers the corporation that owns the academy -- assumed those positions themselves.

A fourth Norbertine, Fr. Paul DeAntoniis, was later appointed to serve as academic dean.

Three days before, on April 19, Kelly sent one-sentence certified letters to executive officers of the Archmere Alumni Council dissolving the Alumni Association.

Kelly and the other two priests vested with authority over both Archmere Academy and the nearby Norbertine priory complained that the Alumni Association had posted items on the Alumni Association Web site without permission of the Norbertine Fathers.

At a meeting with parents on April 24, Kelly said the dismissals of Archmere’s top administrators was intended to strengthen the Norbertines’ presence at the academy and occurred in response to a letter sent to the abbot general in Rome. He said the action was taken on the advice of the Norbertines’ business consultant, Mike Russo, a former member of the Archmere Academy board of trustees.

Students protested the firings by walking out of classes when they heard the news April 23. The faculty joined them in protesting the dismissals. By that evening different constituencies in the school community had rallied around to form a Committee To Save Archmere and threatened legal action.

Tom Grimm, a spokesman for the parents’ group participating in the Committee to Save Archmere, said the goal of the committee was to “restore control of Archmere into the hands of Norbertine priests who put the education of our children above their own personal agendas.”

Grimm said the meeting between the new academy administrators and parents on April 24 failed to offer a satisfactory explanation for the firings. Grimm said that Kelly, Logan and Bagnato were virtually unknown to the Archmere community before they declared themselves in charge of the school.

More protests at the school followed. The school’s alumni council set up an alternate Web site to coordinate strategy and to inform alumni around the world of developing events. Carmen Franceschino, president of the Alumni Association, estimated a few hundred people came to campus for the first vigil, and between 700 and 800 people attended a second.

The letter to Rome was sent by six people calling themselves The Friends of Archmere. They included Biden and Michele Rollins, widow of trucking magnate John W. Rollins Sr. and an Archmere benefactor. The letter raised questions about the leadership provided by the executive committee and complained of a recent decision by the Norbertine Fathers to close the Patio to social events.

For years the Patio, the Renaissance mansion built by the Raskobs, had been the site of social events at the school. School proms and other school functions were held in the Patio along with fund-raisers and alumni events. During the past five years, the Norbertines had converted the Patio into a priory called Immaculate Conception Priory, which housed a community of approximately 20 priests and monks. Some but not all of the priests housed at the priory worked at Archmere Academy, including Collins and Mullen.

According to Tom Mallon, Archmere’s director of development, the priests at the priory had repaired a stained glass ceiling at the mansion and in the process were confronted with an array of other structural problems that had to be addressed and left them believing that because of the expense involved continuous use of the priory endangered the building. A decision to eliminate social gatherings at the Patio was made.

Many alumni were unhappy with the decision, which was posted on the Archmere Alumni Web site. They began a letter-writing campaign. In early April Michelle Rollins delivered the letters, along with the letter from the Friends of Archmere, to the abbot general in Rome.

The impassioned response of Archmere parents, students and alumni to the dismissals relates to what many of them said is the special atmosphere at the academy. Franceschino, Alumni Association president, called the Norbertine priests a tremendously caring group of people. “These priests are just incredible,” said Franceschino. “They baptize our children, they attend our parents’ funerals, they marry us.”

Franceschino said a special bond exists between the student, the school and the Norbertines. “When you graduate from Archmere you never really leave. If you do leave, it’s because you’ve chosen to leave,” he said.

Ro Donohue, a parent of a graduate of Archmere, agreed that Archmere is a rare place. Donohue said she had attended an all-girls Catholic school in New York and had never seen anything like the love and loyalty engendered by Archmere’s faculty and staff.

Teachers and administrators say problems at the academy had been brewing for several years. Some of the problems at Archmere date back to a fissure within the Norbertine community that occurred in 1997 when the group was unable to resolve philosophical differences about where the community should be located. Up to that time, Norbertines who taught and lived at Archmere were affiliated with Daylesford Abbey in Paoli, Pa. With the community divided, some Nobertines left Daylesford and moved to Archmere but had no connection to the academy. Because his loyalties remained with Daylesford, an Archmere Academy headmaster of 12 years, Fr. Joseph McLaughlin, was removed. “That caused a bone of contention with alumni and also internally,” said Mallon, who described McLaughlin as one of the most revered persons in Archmere history.

More recently, there was a push to control the daily activities of the school. Lou LoBosco, a faculty member at the academy for 31 years, said faculty morale had been eroded in the last five or six years by the failure to keep faculty salaries in line with rising costs and by micromanagement on the part of the members of the excutive committee. “They were tying everyone’s hands in terms of what needed to be done. That was very frustrating,” LoBosco said.

Both the bishop of Wilmington and Norbertines around the country were said to have played a part in resolving the standoff at Archmere between the excutive committee members and the different constituencies at the school.

None of the Norbertines in Delaware could be reached for comment.

Margot Patterson’s e-mail is mpatterson@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, May 11, 2001