‘Miracles’: Rhode Island Catholic school thrives after last-ditch purchase from diocese — By: Catholic News Agency

Chesterton students celebrate Mass in the school’s new chapel. / Credit: Chesterton Academy of Our Lady of Hope

CNA Staff, Mar 18, 2024 / 07:00 am (CNA).

A newly launched Catholic school in Rhode Island is on a fast track to growth after what its leader described as a series of “miracles” that led to its acquisition of a disused Catholic property. 

Dioceses across the U.S. regularly announce the sale of old parish properties that are no longer actively in use. The Diocese of Fall River in Massachusetts, for instance, is moving to sell a disused “seasonal church” in Dennis Port — the Our Lady of the Annunciation Chapel — so that the town can raze it to make way for a public park. 

The Diocese of Springfield, also in Massachusetts, is likewise seeking buyers for several properties in its territory. Several years ago the diocese sold a shuttered Catholic high school that was then converted into apartments.

‘God and Our Lady are at the helm’

In Warwick, Rhode Island, meanwhile, the newly launched Chesterton Academy of Our Lady of Hope recently acquired the property of St. Francis School and Church from the Diocese of Providence in what the school’s head described as several miraculous occurrences that played out in rapid succession.

Michael Casey, the president and executive director of the institution, said the school — part of the Minneapolis-based Chesterton Schools Network — was first launched in early 2022 with the goal of opening for students at the start of the 2023 school year. 

Casey said the school’s leaders chose Warwick for its central location in the state. 

“We first went to the diocese to look for properties we could rent, and every property was either in terrible shape or was not for rent by the local pastor,” Casey said. 

The school’s board of directors discovered the St. Francis property and sought to obtain it, but it was not for sale or lease at the time. The school settled instead on a 3,000-square-foot property, which Casey said was “tight.”

“As we tried to make this rental our temporary home, I felt it was too small and kept waiting for a shot at St. Francis,” Casey said, admitting that “every day, I drove by St. Francis Church and School, waiting for the for-sale sign to go up.”

After writing one last-ditch letter to the diocese, Casey learned that the property had just come up for sale and that closing bids on the parcel were in a matter of days. After a flurry of walkthroughs, consultations with a lawyer and real estate agent, a last-minute benefactor’s letter of collateral, and an extension from the realtor — all while the school community was praying a novena — they delivered the proposal “with two hours to spare.” 

“I aged about 10 years from Tuesday night to the following Monday morning,” Casey admitted. 

The school’s bid was ultimately accepted. 

“There are so many miracles that happened in those three days and over the three months while the decision was made,” Casey said, “but we became owners of three acres with a church that seats 400 people, a school that can accommodate 160 students and a rectory [at which] we are housing our teachers.”

“It has been a crazy ride, but we believe God and Our Lady are at the helm,” Casey said. 

Volunteers help install a sign at Chesterton Academy of Our Lady of Hope. Credit: Chesterton Academy of Our Lady of Hope

Following the school’s acquisition of the property, volunteers and engineers both pitched in to help prepare it for opening. Workers “did quite a bit in a short time to get the buildings to code to move in,” Casey said. “We spent about $55,000 to open it and during the first year we needed about $20,000 in repairs that showed up as we started using the property again.”

He admitted that those investments were financially “draining” but that the school is engaging in fundraising as it grows into a four-year institution, after which “the financials look pretty good.” The school currently hosts about 20 students; the St. Francis property can accommodate a total of 160.

Casey said the school is well supported as it launches. Benefactors “are starting to get behind the mission and vision to help the school get to the next level,” he said, while volunteers “have been incredible, sharing their gifts in areas such as painting, construction, and much sweat equity.”

Students in the classroom at Chesterton Academy. Credit: COLE DeSANTIS/Rhode Island Catholic

Casey said the experience with the school shows that lay Catholics looking to help the Church need to “step up and help instead of hoping someone else does it.”

“Catholic laypeople must become part of the solution for the Church’s future,” he said. “We need to support our diocese and priests.” The diocese, Casey added, has been “so supportive” of the school, with a different priest visiting the school “every day” to celebrate its daily Mass. 

“Priests visit us from all over Rhode Island and southern Massachusetts, and the students have an opportunity to see how each priest has a different journey in faith,” he said. “They sometimes share lunch with the students. Priests or deacons help us every month for our First Friday Holy Hours. Both bishops and a few monsignors have celebrated Mass with us.”

Casey said the school aspires to “bring spiritual life back to the Warwick and greater Rhode Island community and help families committed to raising their children to be the next generation of saints.”

“Many Chesterton schools do not start this way with buying at the start,” he said, “but we believe with Our Lady of Hope guiding us, that we will be able to fill the school and help bring more souls to Christ.”

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