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Kevin Cullen

A school on the brink

Email|Print| Text size + By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / November 29, 2007

The kids at St. Peter's School have started asking questions, and like any good first-grade teacher, Colleen O'Dwyer is a master of deflection.

"I tell them nothing's been decided," she was saying, as she and Courtney Carthas, a second-grade teacher, sat with seven kids for the after-school book club.

Technically, that's true, as the final decision to close the Dorchester parochial school has not been made by Cardinal Sean O'Malley. But the stars and the numbers are aligned against St. Peter's, and it is only a matter of time.

To describe St. Peter's as a victim of consolidation in an archdiocese trying to stem a decline in enrollment in its urban schools is to completely miss the importance of the building and those who people it. Sitting on Bowdoin Street, at the foot of Meetinghouse Hill, St. Peter's is more than a school. It is a haven, a sanctuary, four stories of red-brick proof that all is not lost in one of the city's toughest neighborhoods.

St. Peter's has 156 students, but with its after-school programs serves about 400 children who live around Meetinghouse Hill. One of them is Alaister Santos, a chatty, personable first-grader. When they were preparing to commemorate the first anniversary of the death of the great Barry O'Brien, the school's biggest private benefactor, Alaister had only one question: "Where was he shot?"

O'Brien died of lymphoma at the age of 72, at his home in bucolic Berlin. That someone could die in something other than violent circumstances did not occur to Alaister.

The sad, unspoken truth is that St. Peter's faces closure because it is in a high-crime neighborhood and serves the poorest of the poor. But, given the mission of the Catholic Church, isn't that precisely why St. Peter's should stay open?

If this is a simple, straightforward cost analysis, St. Peter's doesn't stand a chance. The numbers will never be in the school's favor.

But as Kathy Connelly, a horse trainer who sponsors two students at St. Peter's, put it: "Jesus wasn't about numbers. He was about impact."

Here are some numbers. About 60 percent of the students are the children of Cape Verdean immigrants. Most others are the children of immigrants from Caribbean islands. About 90 percent of the students qualify for free lunches. Most of their parents work more than one job. The families that send their children to St. Peter's today are the modern-day equivalent of the Irish who sent their children there to the school 109 years ago, when a priest named Rev. Peter Ronan opened the school. Father Ronan was a visionary. He established a day-care center because the immigrants were working long hours.

"Sometimes I wonder what Father Ronan would say now," Mary Lou Amrhein, St. Peter's principal, said, gazing out of the fourth-floor cafeteria, where the gleaming top of the Hancock tower can be seen across the horizon.

It is true that children who now attend St. Peter's could go to other Catholic schools in Dorchester. Some will. Some won't. But the void left if St. Peter's closes will be deep and more than symbolic.

Last year, after St. Anthony's School in New Bedford closed, Sister Suzanne White looked around for a place to teach. She has been a nun, Sisters of Mercy, for 50 years and has devoted her life to teaching the poor. For the last few months, she has been driving up from New Bedford every day to teach, and love, the kindergartners at St. Peter's.

On Tuesday the Christmas decorations went up. Sister Suzanne led her 19 charges in a spirited rendition of "God Bless America." Then she lined them up to bring them to an after-school program.

She looked down at 5-year-old Pedro Andrade.

"I know everything there is about dinosaurs," Pedro said. The only thing wider than Pedro's eyes was his smile.

Sister Suzanne beamed.

Then she looked up and said, "This is why I became a nun."

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com

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