Fr. Daniel Murphy's decision to replace a Brooklyn school’s long-time principal has infuriated parishioners who not only believe he was unjustly let go, but are also concerned that under new leadership, the school will be converted into a charter school.
Furious parishioners at the Church of St. Saviour in Brooklyn, New York told CNA that they began to think something was amiss last April when the parish’s pastor, Father Daniel Murphy, decided not to renew James Flanagan’s contract and replaced him with pastoral parish council member, Maura Lorenzen.
Flanagan, who has over 40 years of education experience, was just about to finish his 25th year as principal of the school.
Parents and students were shocked. One parent, Becky McClintock explained to CNA that she discovered that Flanagan would not be returning as principal "on Mother’s Day from someone from another parish. I didn’t know what they were talking about."
"I went in the next day and found teachers crying and I found Mr. Flanagan and he confirmed it for me."
The decision seems to be the result of a deteriorating relationship between the pastor and principal, which is documented over six pages of complaints in Flanagan's personnel file.
One incident shared with CNA referred to a disputed quote from an auxiliary bishop of Brooklyn, Bishop Frank J. Caggiano.
The bishop’s words came from a meeting in which he spoke about the diocesan plan to convert all Catholic schools into academies by 2013, meaning that the schools will be under the guidance of a board, instead of solely the pastor. During the January 2009 meeting, Bishop Caggiano said, St. Saviour isn’t "ready for that change now."
Fr. Murphy wrote in the personnel file that when he heard this, "I had to think, ‘Mr. Flanagan is why we’re not ready’ and then consider how we could get ready, certainly not by continuing on the same path."
"With all the momentum now gathered toward reviving Catholic schools, this is the right time for SSES to make this change, especially since the Park Slope demographics call for something new and vibrant as much as the efforts by the diocese do," Fr. Murphy wrote.
However, Flanagan and other parishioners such as Jim Gange explained that the pastor took the bishop’s words out of context.
"The bishop’s explanation was that St. Saviour’s was successful and that parents wouldn’t understand the need to change to a new model," Flanagan told CNA.
The bishop confirmed this to Flanagan in a May 2009 meeting.
Feeling he was unjustly replaced, Flanagan appealed to the superintendent’s office where he won the appeal. However, they informed him that they couldn’t force the pastor to re-hire him.
When Flanagan turned to the diocese, he heard the same story. Fr. Kieran Harrington, spokesman for the Diocese of Brooklyn explained, "We do not in Brooklyn have a Catholic school system. He did not work for the diocese, he worked for St. Saviour. He was a contract employee and Fr. Murphy did not renew his contract."
"We don't make the decision. At the end of the day we have to stand by the pastor."
However, some of the parents at St. Saviour are not content to leave the decision where it stands.
McClintock, who is also president of the home school board, explained that "no one deserved the kind of mistreatment that Mr. Flanagan has received." As principal, "he has done a phenomenal job," which is something "I say as a friend and as a parent." Not only does Mr. Flanagan know the name of every child in the school," he also lives out his Catholic beliefs.
"If you want someone who is a phenomenal example of someone living the faith, it’s Mr. Flanagan," she added.
Jim Gange, who has three children at the school, also praised Flanagan. "He is a very, very religious man. He is everything you would want in a principal."
McClintock and other parents and parishioners upset by the principal’s dismissal began picketing in front of the church two months ago and have started a petition that has been signed by over 680 people. It "basically informed people about the injustice that has occurred and we want action taken. We want to be heard and want a response. We want him reinstated and we want all of this to stop," said McClintock.
Flanagan commented on the support, saying that it has "been overwhelming from the parents and the school and a lot of the parishioners too."
Along with voicing their support for Flanagan, parents are also criticizing the intentions of Fr. Murphy. They believe that with Flanagan out of the way, Fr. Murphy and Maura Lorenzen, the new principal, want to convert St. Saviour’s into a charter school.
Their suspicions stem from minutes of a May 12 Parish Pastoral Council meeting where it was recorded that one member of the council "distributed two documents about ‘Charter Schools’, which is a route some (e.g. Mayor Bloomberg) felt local Catholic schools might pursue, and said that she thought Maura Lorenzen was preparing some material on the subject for a future meeting…"
In addition, they are accusing the pastor of being anti-family and instead being more "inclusive."
St. Saviour’s website describes its current mission: "We at St. Saviour commit ourselves to do all that we can to make our parish a place where everyone can truly feel at home and welcomed: the young, the old, and those in between; women and men; the sinner and the saint; gay and straight; the single and the married; the divorced and the widowed; the disappointed and the hurt; everyone. We do what we can to heal hurts, we want to listen, we want to be lovingly present, we want to be inclusive, we want to be, as fully as we can be, the Church that Jesus founded."
Every attempt by CNA to contact Fr. Murphy for over a week was left unanswered.
However, Flangan told CNA that overall, his time at St. Saviour has "been a wonderful experience. The school has really plowed a really good trail into becoming a superb Catholic school. We’ve managed to move it forward through excellent faculty and support from the rectory."
Mr. Flanagan added, "I would like to see a peaceful resolution of this, and I’ve been trying to get that for several months now."