Notably Norwich: Who wants to be a St. Bernard hero?
The Day's recent report that the financially besieged Roman Catholic Diocese of Norwich has a prospective buyer for its Uncasville property that includes St. Bernard School sent shock waves through the region, particularly among those who have been associated with the epochal institution.
"Obviously, I was heartsick," acknowledged Arthur Lamoureux, a popular St. Bernard patriarch who taught English, coached and mentored at St. Bernard for 47 years before retiring in May 2014.
Founded in New London in 1956, St. Bernard has, since the 1960s, been located on a 40-acre Uncasville campus on 113 acres owned by the Norwich Diocese. The overall property, in close proximity to the Mohegan Sun Casino to the north, is assessed by the town of Montville at $21 million. Proceeds from the sale would go toward compensating victims of sexual assault decades ago at the diocesan-run Mount St. John Academy in Deep River.
In 2014, St. Bernard hired Donald Macrino of New London, one of the region's best-known and most respected educators, as its Head of School. Macrino, who came out of retirement to take the position, was supposed to have stayed on until 2018. He is still there today, having overseen a physical overhaul of the school with the help of an alumni capital campaign that raised more than $100,000.
Speculation about the school's future is nothing new. Like others associated with the school, Lamoureux said he's heard various rumors over the years that the school would close or that the 40-acre campus within the 113 acres owned by the diocese in Uncasville would be sold, placing St. Bernard's very survival in jeopardy.
"When my son Artie was born some 49 years ago, the headline in The Day was that St. Bernard was closing," he recalled. "There have always been rumors, but the school always found a way. I am convinced that it will continue to find a way."
Indeed. Here's hoping the diocese will secure an iron-clad commitment from the would-be buyer that the school will be allowed to remain open when and if the transaction is closed.
Otherwise, the diocese should find another buyer.
That's far easier said than done, but no one should have to remind the diocese of the importance and vitality of "the school on the hill." St. Bernard is much more than a school. It's a family, and those close-knit bonds that have developed for decades among students, alumni, faculty and their own families are special ones that last a lifetime.
Just ask anyone who's ever been associated with the school, whether it’s nationally renowned legal scholar Ross Garber, a 1985 graduate, Harold Pressley from the Class of 1982, who played a key role in Villanova's NCAA basketball championship in 1985, or Kevin Ryan, the dean of southeastern Connecticut's state legislative delegation and a Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives, who graduated in 1971.
That's not to say the school is for everyone. Having stumbled and bumbled my way through seventh and eighth grades at Kelly Junior High School in Norwich, I was enrolled by my parents at what was then St. Bernard Boys High School in the fall of 1968. Today, it is a co-educational school includes grades 6-12 and has a student enrollment of about 400 from about 50 communities throughout the region.
To say that I was unhappy about having to attend St. Bernard would be an understatement. Back then, we had to wear ties and gray blazers to school every day, and jeans weren't allowed. We wore sneakers only in gym class. The closest co-eds were miles away at what were then Notre Dame High School in Norwich and St. Bernard Girls High School in New London, both since closed.
I had been looking forward to enrolling at Norwich Free Academy, where virtually all of my Norwich friends and all the other "cool kids" were going for the next four years.
However, recognizing that I needed discipline and structure, better study habits and, well, more discipline, Mom and Dad made it clear my enrollment at St. Bernard was non-negotiable. And when I learned that staff at St. Bernard were permitted to employ corporal punishment when needed, I went from apprehensive to downright defiant. And yes, maybe a little scared, too.
They were indeed strict at St. Bernard. Nonsense and backtalk were not tolerated, even a little. A few found out the hard way that such misbehavior could bring a hard whack to the back of the head or, literally, a good, swift kick in the butt.
A classmate of mine who crossed the line in history class one day quickly found himself face down on the floor with Brother Phillip's knee in his back until he apologized and promised to behave ... which I'm pretty sure he did for the rest of his life.
The faculty there was great. Besides Mr. Lamoureux, there were teachers on staff who could have taught in public school systems and earned higher salaries but remained committed to St. Bernard and the students they taught there because they were believers.
I remember teachers like Bob Demars, who taught English and science; Paul Crotty who taught math; Tom Hayes, who taught gym; even Jim Venditto, my homeroom teacher, who would set the tone for focus and achievement at the beginning of each day.
I'll never forget Bob Brouillard, the wonderfully intense music and band teacher. One day, in a fit of utter exasperation, Mr. Brouillard threw a book at me in rehearsal when I kept missing my cymbal solo in a song called "Bandology."
The night of the concert, though, I nailed it - sweaty palms and all - in front of an auditorium full of people. Mr. Brouillard came up after the concert, put his arm around me and said happily: "I knew you'd get it!"
Jimmy Leone, a friend and NFA schoolmate of mine, was a beloved, theology teacher and coach there for more than 40 years. In the 1980s, I got to know Rich Pagliuca, the iconic, long-time guidance counselor and state champion basketball coach who mentored thousands of students, including our two sons.
The boys' experiences there were different from each other's, but there was never a doubt that they were getting an excellent education there even though the school had changed significantly over the years.
That's not to say the place was run like Parris Island. The faculty and staff - including the Christian brothers - worked hard to ensure we were all learning, not only about reading, writing, math, history and science, but religion and ethics, too. There was a familial order about the place that, in hindsight, I wish I'd stayed with.
Instead, however, I bowed to the intensive coaxing of my Norwich buddies and hounded my parents relentlessly to let me enroll at NFA. Finally, and probably against their better judgment, they relented, and in the fall of 1970, I went from being a Saint to a Wildcat.
NFA turned out to be a great school as well. I loved being able to wear jeans and sneakers and, occasionally, a t-shirt to school instead of a tie and blazer. There were lots of friends - new and old and of both genders - and fun to be had, whether it was cutting school on occasion for a day at the beach or weekend parties at the homes of kids whose parents were away for the weekend.
It was certainly freer at NFA, but through no one's fault but my own, my grades were never as good in the ensuing three years as they had been at St. Bernard.
Like other schools, St. Bernard is proud of its graduates. In fact, with many positive experiences during his nearly half-century at the school, Lamoureux holds a soft place in his heart for the annual graduations from which thousands of students have been launched into various fields and levels of success whether locally, nationally or even internationally.
" 'What would Jesus do?' becomes a question that serves as motivation for our students, not all of whom are Catholic," he said when asked what makes St. Bernard special. "I am convinced that our graduates are well aware of what we expect of them when they graduate, and what and how they should do and act once they become permanent members of whatever community they populate. I think having community members who are that focused is a good thing!
"The school has been refurbished, and Don Macrino has done a masterful job in guiding the school as the headmaster, and as I said, efforts are well underway in planning for the future," he continued. "Nobody ever saw the school being sold, and this becomes but one more hurdle to clear in a history of hurdles. It is my fervent hope that whoever buys the school can see what the school means to the community and that it has fulfilled its mission over the years.
“I hope that the buyers have room in their hearts as well as their business plan to allow the school to lease its present space and continue to fulfill its mission. Allowing the school to continue, in my opinion, would instantly make the buyer a hero in southeastern Connecticut educational history, and they would be positively remembered for life."
Bill Stanley, a former vice president at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital, is a native of Norwich.