Lawrence Harmon

An urban paradox in Oak Square

Stephen Ashcraft (above) is among the volunteers for the foundation to reuse Presentation School, a shuttered parochial school in Brighton. Stephen Ashcraft (above) is among the volunteers for the foundation to reuse Presentation School, a shuttered parochial school in Brighton. (Joanne Rathe/ Globe Staff)
By Lawrence Harmon
May 23, 2010

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FREEZE-THAW CYCLES are scarring the walls and ceilings of the shuttered Our Lady of the Presentation School in the Oak Square section of Brighton. Makeshift duct work attached to an outside gas generator blows hot air into the building. Unless a couple of hundred thousand dollars blows in, too, it could be curtains for an extraordinary effort to redeem the property.

The Archdiocese of Boston couldn’t get out of its own way in 2005 when it closed the K-6 Catholic school, changed the locks, and cancelled graduation ceremonies just two days before the end of the school year. Parents and parishioners were already reeling from the clergy sexual abuse scandal. The Presentation children were frantic, too. Their pet goldfish had been locked inside by church officials who feared parents would take over the building in protest of a parish reconfiguration plan that closed both the school and nearby church. It was an ungodly mess.

Lawsuits and recriminations followed. But a group of Presentation school parents and their supporters stood apart from the chaos, determined to negotiate in good faith with the archdiocese. They wanted to buy the school building — not occupy it for a vigil. The organizers of the nonprofit Presentation School Foundation were convinced that protection of a neighborhood institution would play a key role in whether the mostly middle-class residents of Oak Square would keep their connection to the city or drift toward the suburbs like so many before them. That belief grew even stronger recently when the Menino administration announced the probable closing of the Faneuil branch library across the square from the school building.

In 2007, the Presentation volunteers bought the building. They’ve raised $1.5 million from foundations, neighbors, institutions, and nearby businesses for acquisition and renovation. The group has lined up commitments for space from a preschool, family health center, and provider of immigrant and adult education services. But the Presentation foundation is still $275,000 shy of what it needs to secure $4.5 million for renovation financing and retirement of the acquisition loan, which is overdue.

“We’ve kept our heads above water,’’ said Kevin Carragee, a member of Presentation’s board. “Not our necks.’’

In a city that increasingly measures its success by occupancy rates for luxury condos and gourmet restaurants, the Presentation foundation counts kids. A recent Brookings report ranks Boston/Cambridge 91 out of 95 metropolitan areas in the United States in the number of residents in the 5-14 age range (just 9.1 percent). Carragee decried the trend and said his group is determined to keep faith in a building “with more than 80 years of serving families in their neighborhood.’’ It’s the right approach in a city with a greater need for little leaguers than tall lattes.

A villain would come in handy right now as a focus for fund-raising. But there really isn’t one. In an extraordinary act of contrition, the archdiocese sold the building to the group for $1 million less than its market value. The Menino administration just tapped $300,000 from a WGBH neighborhood stabilization fund to help close the group’s funding gap. St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center has shown consistent generosity. Boston Community Capital, the acquisition lender, is the picture of patience. Boston College hasn’t pitched in yet. But BC spokesman Jack Dunn said the college would consider a proposal from its Presentation neighbors in addition to the college’s support for education programs at the nearby St. Columbkille school.

Meanwhile, the classrooms off the arched hallway of the 1920s-era Presentation building are starting to crumble. In one empty classroom on the second floor, an overlooked volume of “The Life of Christ’’ rests on a window sill. It opens with a passage about the “paradox’’ of Jesus, who appeared in a region of minor importance in the Roman Empire and spent the first 30 years of his life in a humble village as a carpenter.

The Presentation School story is an urban paradox all its own. In a brutal economy that has crippled sophisticated nonprofit groups, a cadre of volunteers from an unpretentious neighborhood find themselves a foundation grant or two shy of pulling off a redevelopment deal that represents the best of urban life. It’s a movement of mostly middle-class families determined to stabilize their neighborhood. But its business plan calls for English classes for immigrants, community health programs, and a sliding scale preschool. No one is getting walled out of Oak Square.

The neighborhood may have lost a church and parochial school. But there’s no absence of spirit in Oak Square.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at

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