New Catholic high school acquires St. Francis property

Posted 6/8/23

It all happened in less than a week and those planning a new classical Catholic high school in Rhode Island, the Chesterton Academy of Our Lady of Hope, are still in a state of disbelief.

On May …

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New Catholic high school acquires St. Francis property


It all happened in less than a week and those planning a new classical Catholic high school in Rhode Island, the Chesterton Academy of Our Lady of Hope, are still in a state of disbelief.

On May 31 Michael Casey, founder and president of the academy – one of 40 in this country,– and key members of the group, Phil Primeau and Jason Codding closed a $1.6 million deal to purchase St. Francis of Assisi Church and School from the Diocese of Providence. The property on Jefferson Boulevard in Warwick includes the church, school, parish house and garage on about three acres near the intersection of Coronado Street.

Ever since committing to opening an academy in Rhode Island, Casey has searched for a geographically central location that would serve families seeking an independent classical education from throughout Rhode Island and nearby Massachusetts and Connecticut. Jefferson Boulevard, with easy access to Routes 95 and 295, was the preferred location, and last year the group signed a lease for 4,000 square feet of office space at 487 Jefferson Boulevard.

Realizing the school might outgrow the space, Casey kept an eye on real estate listings and periodically checked the diocese website on properties it looked to sell. In particular he hoped to find St. Francis of Assisi School that closed in 2009. The school, an extension of the church, was never on the list as the Diocese had not determined its future use. Then, early this year, Casey spotted it on the list with a short two-week window to submit proposals. He had about a week to the deadline in the last week of February.

That hardly seemed enough time to talk to the academy’s board of directors, find a realtor who could walk them through the process and an attorney to represent their interests and draft a letter of intent. Assuming that all came together, there was the issue of price, putting together the financing, performing the due diligence on the property and developing a plan to have the school ready for a projected opening this fall.

On Friday the academy board, students, their siblings and parents – more than 60 people- gathered outside St. Francis of Assisi Church and School for a first time. They huddled for a group photo and then entered the church for announcements and an overview of developments. The school tour came next. Most of the rooms were void of furniture. The paint looked tired, but the place was clean. The lights worked. There was chalk along the boards.

Casey said he didn’t know what to expect seeing the school had been closed for 14 years. He was surprised. The canonical parish was merged with SS. Rose and Clement Parish, Warwick, in 2021. Since then the church has been used by the Knights of Columbus for meetings but there are no regular services.

Buildings can go down hill pretty quickly if not used, Casey observed. He credited condition of the school and the church to Dennis, “Scotty of the enterprise for St. Francis because he was so diligent in taking care of that place.”

Then there’s James McGwin. A member of the academy board of advisors, McGwin taught CCD classes at St. Francis. He knows the buildings and looks forward to seeing the school and the church as vibrant community members.

As of last week, 16 students were enrolled in the academy. They are predominately 9th graders with a few 10th graders. Casey expects the opening enrollment could be closer to 20, but he is not looking to push it for the first year. Tuition is $8,000.

The academy has retained one full time teacher and Robert Duffy, Ph.D., as headmaster. Duffy, 32, a graduate of Bishop Hendricken High School received a B.A. in Philosophy and Humanities from Villanova University and a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Fordham University, He and his family have a house in Rhode Island. Duffy will assume his role in July. Walsh is looking to develop an athletic program for the academy and for places to rent space.

At the time of his appointment, Duffy said in a written statement, “Students at Chesterton Academy will encounter the beauty and wonder of reality through a richly classical and Christ-centered education, one that fosters true friendship in the pursuit of wisdom and holiness.”

Casey first learned of the Chesterton Academy when he and his wife visited their daughter and son-in-law four years ago in Chicago. A devote Catholic, Casey attends mass daily. The church he attended was home to a Chesterton Academy and he became curious of the students who seemed happy and purposeful. As he learned more about the academy he shared his interest with Ed Walsh. Wash urged Casey to attend a Chesterton “Discovery Day” in Chicago where 40 to 50 people considering starting an academy were to learn more.

Casey, who had sold his company, Survey Advantage which he started in his garage in 2001, was retired but wasn’t sure he was ready to take on such a big project as starting a school. Walsh kept prodding. Together they are the co-founders of Our Lady of Hope. 

Casey has confidence in home schooling, but feels once young people reach high school they need the interaction of being with other students. .

“There’s a lot going on in high school,” he said, “having peers around you is important.”

Casey also looks at it from the parent and how the academy can “take the edge off and build a community.”

Chesterton offers a classical education and the Socratic form of teaching that engages students in discussions and cooperatively working together. Students are taught Latin, which posed a challenge for the nascent academy as there is not an abundance of Latin teachers.

They have found a Latin teacher. After visiting St. Thomas Aquinas in Sparkill, New York, Casey is confident of a teaching team going forward. During his visit, Casey posted a notice of a pizza party for the students. When they gathered, he inquired how many where considering a teaching career. Six said they were interested.

Casey is buoyed by the support he and the school have received from those in and outside the diocese. With hardly any time to put a proposal together, the academy called upon friends of friends to help.

“I think one of the joys of this project has been seeing the goodness of so many people that did not know each other at the start of this and how everyone is leaning on each other and helping each other unselfishly to move this forward. Parents, board members, volunteers, donors who did not know each other, but now are forming friendships,” he wrote in a text.

He notes that Father Robert Marciano, president of Hendricken High and pastor of St. Kevin, called Duffy to offer his help the day after the announcement of his appointment as headmaster and “the way Father (Andrew) Messina took care of that place with parishioners and with his maintenance man, Dennis , for all these years.”

Casey applauds Navigant Credit Union that financed the purchase.

“As the new Bishop of Providence, I am delighted that these buildings will find a new life in serving the mission of the Church,” Bishop Richard Henning said in a release issued the day of the closing, “I am also grateful for the opportunity to join my voice to that of Bishop Tobin in welcoming the Chesterton Academy to the Diocese of Providence. The excellence of the Classical and Catholic education offered by Chesterton Academies has been a blessing to the Church across the US and beyond and I look forward to seeing this new mission grow and flourish.”

As young kids raced between classrooms and parents and soon to be students of the first Chesterton Academy in Rhode Island contemplated how best to use the abundance of newfound space, Casey sat on a classroom heat register, his daughter Christin Garrepy, holding her infant daughter Kiara listening.

She said she had just done the math and Kiara would be a member of the Chesterton Academy of Our Lady of Hope in 2040

Casey smiled.

That was a long way off, but the possibility of that happening seemed real Friday.

On climbing the stairs to the second story Brian Mattias, father of Alana who will be attending the academy, was in awe.

“Everything is falling into place as if by magic if we didn’t know better,” he said.

academy, school, catholic


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