In St. Bernard Academy’s 150-year history, there have been few changes as dramatic as those that took place in 1989.
That year, the last St. Bernard High School class graduated. The Sisters of Mercy decided to sell the Hillsboro Village convent building they had occupied since 1905. They also opted to turn over control of the elementary school, then known as St. Bernard Nongraded Academy, to a newly formed parent-led non-profit organization, and sell them the old high school building so the elementary school could be relocated there from the old convent.
“It certainly was daunting at the time,” said Philip Mattingly, who was chair of the parent advisory board during the transition. Through a lot of meetings, paperwork, prayer and peanut M&M’s, everything eventually fell into place, he said. “We knew the good Lord had to be involved.”
When the parent advisory board first started exploring the idea of forming a non-profit organization to independently run the school and purchase the high school building from the Sisters of Mercy, they really had no model to follow. They found one high school in California where a group of parents had worked with a religious order to restructure the governance and operation of a Catholic school, but found no elementary schools that had done the same.
“We had a really simple prayer at every board meeting,” Mattingly said, which was one of Thomas Merton’s that begins, “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end …”
In the nearly 30 years since that transition, the school has flourished, so much so that St. Bernard kicked off this school year with a $4.2 million campus expansion. “We have every reason to believe it will be there for another 100 years,” said Mattingly, whose wife is currently a kindergarten teacher at St. Bernard.
But again, at the time, it wasn’t so certain. “The concern for the first couple of years was ‘Are we gonna make it?’” said Pat Nolan, also a member of the parent advisory board at the time of the transition. “We were young and naïve and didn’t think about all that could go wrong.”
The events were set in motion, in part, by a visit from the fire marshal. The old brick convent building was inspected and the Sisters were informed that extensive renovations would be needed to bring the Hillsboro Village property up to code. Instead of pouring money into that building, where the Sisters lived and ran the elementary school, they decided it would be more practical to sell it and use the money to build a new convent 15 miles away in Pennington Bend.
Since enrollment was down in the high school, and “it was in a weaker situation than the elementary school,” according to Sister Suzanne Stalm, RSM, who taught at the high school at the time, the Sisters decided to close that school.
At the same time, they began contemplating the future of the elementary school. The Sisters considered selling the whole campus and possibly moving the elementary school to another location. They told the parent advisory board they could not commit to running the school beyond the next three years.
“The Sisters were doing other things besides teaching: health care, pastoral ministry, social justice ministry, etc. There weren’t as many sisters teaching,” said Sister Lauren Cole, RSM, a former teacher and principal of St. Bernard High School.
Since three school branches that the Sisters of Mercy had operated on the Hillsboro Village campus also closed in 1989 – the all-girls high school, a special education school, and a Montessori school – it was time to rethink the future of the elementary school.
SBA parents started getting nervous and began looking for other schools for their children in case the elementary school also closed. Mattingly was simultaneously looking at alternate schools for his son and scouting out possible new locations for St. Bernard.
When a frustrated real estate agent asked him, “Why don’t you all just buy the place?” and then another parent, at a separate time, wondered aloud, “wouldn’t it be great if the parents could buy the school and the Sisters could run it?” Mattingly thought they might be on to something. He started running the numbers and realized it might be possible.
They presented the idea to Sister Melanie Boyd, RSM, the St. Bernard Nongraded Academy principal at the time, who was “the lynchpin” of the deal, according to Mattingly. She supported the plan, and committed to stay on as principal during the transition. After making their case to the local Sisters of Mercy, the parent advisory board then had to meet with the Sisters’ leadership in Cincinnati.
They also had to work closely with then-Bishop James Niedergeses, St. Bernard’s neighbors, Metro Council members, the IRS, and more players to make sure all church and civil laws were followed. Nolan, a public relations professional, was also busy working with the press “to get the word out that we were still in existence.”
Under the transition plan, four Sisters of Mercy would continue at the newly independent Catholic school as long as possible, but ultimately the parent board would be responsible for finding staffing for the school.
“The last thing we wanted was the church hierarchy saying that this is not really a Catholic school,” said Nolan, who attended St. Bernard from kindergarten through fifth grade, and whose daughters also attended the school. The board recruited Ed Johnston, a former priest, to help navigate canon law requirements and negotiations with the Diocese of Nashville.
“Bishop Niedergeses was extremely helpful to us at the time,” Mattingly said. In fact, the school library was dedicated in his honor in 1993.
As the idea of buying the old high school building and relocating the new, independent Catholic elementary school there started to become a reality, “we sold everything we could find to sell” to raise money, from chocolate Santas to spaghetti supper tickets, Nolan said.
The Sisters of Mercy worked with the parents to offer them a favorable sale price of around $1 million, and payment plan. The parents did not want to suddenly ratchet up tuition (at the time around $2,000) and they wanted to continue to welcome the significant population of non-Catholic families. “We wanted all parents in this together,” Nolan said, and that meant “equalizing the tuition” at a little higher rate so Catholic and non-Catholic families would all pay the same rate.
“St. Bernard is as Catholic as can be, but with its arms outstretched and welcoming,” Mattingly said. “The Mercies are not there now, but their spirit is,” he added. “They have done a great deal for this diocese.”