Mar 3, 2014

UPDATED: Cathedral, St. Michael’s Academy to be rebuilt with FEMA help



(Photo by Terence Hegarty)

Staff report

SPRINGFIELD – Making his most definitive statement yet regarding the future of Cathedral High School and St. Michael’s Academy, Springfield Bishop Timothy A. McDonnell said March 3 that the school will be rebuilt at its Surrey Road site.

“We now have the brick and mortar funds to rebuild here on Surrey Road, and so we shall,” he said at a 1:30 p.m. press conference that was held outdoors at the main entrance of the tornado-ravaged Cathedral High School.

The Diocese of Springfield has been awarded $28.8 million in the form of a Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) grant. The funds will be added to the approximately $40 million of insurance proceeds that the diocese received last fall and will allow for replacement of Cathedral High School, as well address facility needs for St. Michael’s Academy Middle School and St. Michael’s Academy Preschool.

FEMA arrives at its funding level after conducting its own review of damage and determining the adequacy of insurance proceeds. It then sets a “fixed estimate” based on the unfunded portion, paying 75 percent.

The proceeds will aid the diocese in its recovery from a June 1, 2011 tornado that ravaged the campus, which housed both the high school and the middle school. The agreement opens the way for demolition and reconstruction to begin. The federal funds are to be used for rebuilding and for new materials such as school furnishings.

                                (Photo by Terence Hegarty)

The bishop was joined by local and federal officials in announcing the news. More than three dozen Catholic school supporters also stood in the frigid air to hear the details of the settlement. They responded with cheers and applause when the bishop said that the school would, in fact, be rebuilt.

Congressman Richard E. Neal, Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno and acting regional administrator of FEMA, Paul Ford, all of whom worked with the diocese to broker the agreement, were on hand for the announcement.

“This is a most significant day,” Congressman Neal said as he opened the press conference. “We’re reminded today that there is opportunity in crisis.”

Part of the perceived crisis, aside from the devastation of the buildings, has been the uncertainty regarding the survival of Cathedral as an entity. Cathedral has seen enrollment declines over the last decades.

“One cannot begin to imagine the city of Springfield without Cathedral High School,” Congressman Neal told the press and supporters gathered.

He also cited the history of the school. “For 130 years, Cathedral High School has offered hope and aspiration, first to the immigrant classes and then to succeeding generations seeking opportunity and success,” he said.

The congressman, who once taught at Cathedral, offered thanks to the Sisters of St. Joseph who, for many decades, “staffed this school through difficult challenges and through great days, but always (were) a beacon of light for all of us who sought their counsel.”

Bishop McDonnell thanked the Cathedral community and numerous others for their patience.

“God be praised!,” the bishop said as he began his remarks. “To those three words, I’ll add three more: patience, gratitude and trust.”

He said it has been “a long haul” since the tornado, more than two-and-a-half years ago. “It’s taken patience and persistence to reach this happy occasion.

“Some people pushed for a faster outcome,” Bishop McDonnell told the crowd, “but if we had not been patient, we wouldn’t have had today’s announcement.”

As a result of an innovative federal pilot program, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the Diocese of Springfield and FEMA have agreed to fixed estimates of federal funds. The grants, awarded through the Commonwealth to the diocese, are made under the provisions of the Sandy Recovery Improvement Act (SRIA) Alternative Procedures.

The pilot program was authorized by congress through an innovative change to the Stafford Act aimed at improving the speed and effectiveness of recovery while reducing administrative costs. The final fixed estimate for the two projects totals $29,428,184.00, of which FEMA will provide 75 percent of the funding, with the balance coming from the Springfield Diocese.

(Iobserve file photo by Fred LeBlanc)

The funding, which comes with flexibility of use, will assist with the demolition of existing buildings, abatement of hazardous material, site preparation and replacement of the damaged facilities.

In addition, FEMA will provide funding through a series of smaller grants, addressing needs costing $9 million, which also will be covered 75 percent by federal funds and the remainder by the diocese. These expenses include money to reimburse the diocese for a range of assistance, including contents and equipment, emergency site safety, security work and temporary facilities that the schools will need until the new facilities are completed. This tailored  recovery package is a unique collaboration of federal, state and  diocese stakeholders over the last five months since the diocese insurance claim was settled.

“I’m grateful to Congressman Neal for being with us today, for the support and encouragement he provided during this long process, and for his own patience in seeing it through,” Bishop McDonnell said.

The bishop went on to thank “all of those who worked on behalf of the diocese to reach the insurance settlement and to meet deadlines.”

“I’m grateful to all those who were patient with us and never lost hope,” he said.

Both Congressman Neal and Bishop McDonnell spoke of what they said is the biggest challenge that lies ahead; that of building an endowment for tuition assistance for future Cathedral students. “The building will go up,” Bishop McDonnell said. “More important, however, are the students yet to enter its halls. I’m trusting those who have benefited from a Cathedral education in the past to ensure that students for generations to come will be able to afford a Cathedral High School education.”

The congressman said that the Cathedral family needs to “build an endowment that is worthy of the esteemed reputation of this high school.” Speaking of supporters of the high school, Congressman Neal said, “We know how much, through letters to the editor and public commentary, they told everybody they loved Cathedral. Now’s their chance to like it,” he said, by financially supporting the school.

Last fall, when the diocese received a long-awaited settlement from its insurance carrier, the bishop challenged alumni members to pledge an amount equal to one year of Cathedral tuition (currently $9,300) to establish the endowment.

The goal for the fund, which was recently established, is $10 million. The fund was established with a $500,000 donation from Michele and Donald D’Amour. “I’m asking now that the Cathedral family and friends join in,” the bishop said.

Bishop McDonnell, along with numerous diocesan personnel, believes that the enrollment woes are due in large part to the financial burden that families face when considering paying for a Catholic school education. “The future of the building is secure,” he said, “the future of the student body is in your hands.”

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno also made formal remarks, thanking the “Cathedral family” for their patience and resilience. The eldest of his two daughters is currently a student at Cathedral and his younger daughter is enrolled at St. Michael’s Academy.

“Cathedral has been a stronghold in East Forest Park in the city of Springfield,” Mayor Sarno said. “I know there have been some trying times, but we are now moving forward.”

Ford said that, while he understands that people wanted the federal assistance sooner, the time was needed in order for things to have been done properly. The result, he said, was ideal because it allowed for more funding than would have been garnered if the process had been rushed. He said that the funding agreement represents “the best outcome that we could have.”

“Today marks an important milestone,” Ford said, noting that the rebuilding can now go forward “in an efficient and effective manner.”

Ford said that the funding will “make sure that we maintain the legacy of Cathedral High School.” He noted that, in addition to the funding that is going to the diocese, $35 million has been bestowed from FEMA to the city of Springfield for other tornado-related damage.

                   (Iobserve file photo/William Pacocha)                                                                                                     

It is still unclear as to whether any parts of the existing structure on Surrey Road can be salvaged and incorporated into the new facility, according to Bishop McDonnell. He said that having the funds in place will allow for more definitive planning to take place.

“FEMA administrator Craig W. Fugate has provided me with a clear message,” said Ford. “Assisting our local communities in getting our schools operational after a disaster is an important FEMA mission and it is vital to the robust recovery of a community.

“I am so impressed with the collaborative effort with our federal, state and local partners and I am particularly pleased that we were able to establish temporary school locations as we worked on this complicated, long-term recovery plan which will provide state-of-the-art educational facilities for the community,” he said.

Since the tornado, Cathedral has been housed in the former Memorial School on Main Street in Wilbraham. The diocese has a lease agreement for the facility through June of 2015.

Follow this link to see “Real to Reel’s” YouTube video of the press conference.

For more on this story, tune into an upcoming edition of “Real to Reel,” the Diocese of Springfield’s television newsmagazine that airs Saturday evenings at 7 on WWLP-22NEWS.