Riverhead Catholics join forces to save East End high school

Bishop McGann-Mercy High School in Riverhead is set to close in June, to the dismay of students and their families.

By Joseph Konig and Charles Hamma

The families of McGann-Mercy High School in Riverhead are scrambling to save their beloved school after the Diocese of Rockville Centre announced the school would close in June.

Parents and students organized letter-writing groups to appeal to the Pope, Vatican officials and even celebrities who might be sympathetic to their cause. Over 150 people marched in support of the growing movement at the Hampton Bays St. Patrick’s parade on Saturday.

“We have to engage everybody,” Jack Lillywhite said. His son Frederick is a freshman at McGann-Mercy. “We got to become visible and we got to let the diocese know that we’re not going away. That we’re here to stay.”

On March 12th, the Diocese of Rockville Centre announced the high school would close at the end of the school year, in conjunction with the merging of two elementary schools. The financial burden of keeping the school open forced Bishop John Barres’ hand, the diocese argued despite McGann-Mercy’s function as the only Catholic high school on the East End of Long Island. The diocese, which contains most of Suffolk and Nassau counties, promised that current students could attend St. John the Baptist Diocese High School in West Islip, 42 miles away.

“It’s not healthy for any kid to have to spend fourteen hours going back and forth and at the school,” Lillywhite said.

The bishop pointed to declining enrollment, demographic changes and the nearly $20 million the diocese gave the school in subsidies since 2007.

“At this stage, we have to also look at the long view of Catholic education on Long Island and be good stewards of the resources we have,” the bishop said.

The McGann-Mercy community had other ideas. One of the movement’s organizers, Kerry Wilkie, said that a 501(c)(3) charitable foundation is being formed with the intention of attracting financially significant pledges for the school.

“No one said, ‘Hey look, red flag! Here’s what we have going and we’re in trouble,’” Wilkie said. “That wasn’t the message ever given to us, so we want a chance to make it right. We’ve received the message, but we need more time.”

Part of the solution Wilkie and the others are working on involves addressing enrollment. Enrollment at the East End schools dropped by 37% since 2011, in part due to less school-aged children living in those areas, according to a diocese press release.

“The enrollment decline partially reflects a 6.2 percent drop in the school-age population in Suffolk County between 2011 and 2016 – a loss of 19,000 children,” the release said, citing US Census data.

However, the problem was not a lack of potential students, Wilkie argued. The mother of two McGann-Mercy students works as a community fundraiser and owns an online marketing company.

“The school wasn’t marketed correctly at all,” Wilkie said. “I think that in the future, if we get the chance, enrollment is not going to be an issue. It just needed to be placed in the right hands.”

Whether the community will get that chance or not remains very much up in the air. Wilkie said her and the other organizers have not yet heard from the bishop or other officials. The diocese did not return multiple requests for comment for this article.

“That’s all the parents are asking for right now,” Lillywhite said. “That’s all I think anybody is asking for right now is an opportunity to show that we can make work.”

Any meeting with the bishop won’t happen until after Easter, which falls on April 1 this year. Already short on time, those fighting to keep McGann-Mercy open will have less than three months to keep their community together.

About Joseph Konig 5 Articles
My name is Joseph Konig and I am a journalism student at Stony Brook University on Long Island. I write for “The Osprey” and for “The Statesman,” an independent weekly where I am the assistant arts editor.