Advocates carrying a Save Bishop McGann-Mercy High School banner marched in the St. Patrick's Day parade in Jamesport. Photo: Denise Civiletti

McGann-Mercy parents have turned a corner, moving from shock and disbelief to steadfast determination that the only Catholic high school in eastern Suffolk County should not close down.

The March 12 announcement by the Diocese of Rockville Centre that the high school would close in June stunned students, parents, faculty and staff. The message was delivered to the school by email and robocall when a website published by the diocese went live late on that Monday afternoon. The way the news was conveyed by the diocese struck many as cold, even cruel.

Since then, there has been little coming out of Rockville Centre to change that initial impression.

“We’ve been attempting to get a meeting with the bishop,” said Tracy Kappenberg of Baiting Hollow, president of the McGann-Mercy parents advisory council. The diocese has so far been unresponsive. “We understand it’s Easter week and he’s very busy,” she said. But the lack of communication between the diocese and the school community is nothing new. Past requests for meetings with a representative of the diocese also went without response, Kappenberg said.

“When [principal Carl] Semmler announced he was leaving at the end of last year, we attempted to communicate with the diocese, wanting to be involved in choosing the new principal,” Kappenberg said. “There was no response from the diocese. Eventually we were told Deacon John would be the interim principal.”

Then came the devastating news. McGann-Mercy, as well as the elementary schools Our Lady of Mercy in Cutchogue and St. Isidore School in Riverhead would close at the end of the current school term. The two elementary schools would be consolidated into a new elementary school on the St. Isidore campus, which will be called St. John Paul II Elementary School. But Mercy’s closure, 60 years after it opened, would leave Suffolk County without a Catholic high school east of  exit 53 on the L.I. Expressway. St. John the Baptist High School is located in West Islip and St. Anthony’s is located in Huntington. The diocese cited declining enrollments and mounting debt.

As the shock wore off, parents sprang into action. A Facebook group formed, an online petition was launched, a website was built and parent activism coalesced around the advisory council. Mercy alumni came forward to offer help and support.

“We’ve been doing a lot of research,” Kappenberg said. “Organizations in other places have stepped in to save Catholic schools.” She pointed to a group called “Faith in the Future” as an example of a group that formed to keep Catholic high schools alive in the City of Philadelphia.

The organization operates 17 high schools under a management agreement with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, and is responsible for funding any operational deficits at those schools.

Faith in the Future is one example, Kappenberg said. There are others, she said.

New tennis courts at McGann-Mercy were installed and dedicated in the fall of 2016. Photo: Denise Civiletti

The Mercy community is a very engaged and committed community, as it has already demonstrated by fundraising to build new tennis courts, re-do the track and football field and the softball field, as well as a brand new weight room, Kappenberg said. All of these projects were completed in recent years solely with donations procured by parents.

“I would have hoped they would have taken a look at that and said, ‘Wow, there’s a lot of very involved families that love this school.’ I would have hoped they’d given us a chance to save it,” she said.

“Even if they’d have given us a year… But we were never given the opportunity.”

The parents are hoping the diocese might be willing to lease the campus to a nonprofit organization they are setting up. They’ve reached out to religious organizations, like the Marianist brothers, to discuss a possible affiliation.

“I’m very surprised, in a way, that the diocese would make this decision,” Kappenberg said. “Catholic education is the way to build Catholic parishes.”

A Catholic education is so important to many parents that they are willing to send their children to West Islip or Huntington in order to provide it.

“It’s a very long ride,” said Kerry Wilkie of Hampton Bays, whose son is a freshman at McGann-Mercy this year. He will be on the bus for 90 minutes in each direction.

“We must choose between Catholic education and a 14 1/2 hour school day,” Wilkie said.

“We’re going to attempt it and give it a try,” Wilkie said. “I don’t know if that’s going to be an option. If not, our plan as a family to raise our children through Catholic education is destroyed.”

Wilkie serves as an administrator of the Mercy High School Friends Facebook group, which was formed to support the school in its quest to stay open, It now has more than 1,900 members.

She said a Catholic education is important because of prayer and the values taught in Catholic schools.

“Children are more accountable to others,” she said. “We live our faith. It’s important to me to have my children around others who feel that way — faith first.”

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Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor and attorney. Her work has been recognized with numerous journalism awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She was also honored in 2020 with a NY State Senate Woman of Distinction Award for her trailblazing work in local online news. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.