The Madison Diocese is taking steps to address concerns about changes at a prominent Southwest Side parish’s school, but will not consent to the independent, “thorough investigation” hundreds of parishioners have demanded.
A couple dozen St. Maria Goretti parishioners waited outside the Diocese of Madison headquarters Tuesday afternoon, hoping to see Bishop Donald Hying or someone else in authority emerge to address concerns in a petition that claims since Bob Schell was hired as principal, “the school has lost over 30% of its faculty and staff and over 80 students, corresponding to a 20% drop in enrollment.”
Instead, the Diocese’s superintendent of Catholic schools issued a letter Tuesday saying he spoke with several school parents and grandparents last week and on Thursday met with Hying, Schell, St. Maria Goretti priest Scott Emerson and school staff.
“The meeting lasted over 90 minutes and illuminated the many, varied perspectives held by the faculty, as many of them took the opportunity to voice their feelings and concerns,” Michael Lancaster wrote.
He said Schell and the faculty “were able to commit to next steps to begin improving the overall working environment.”
The dust-up at St. Maria Goretti is the latest source of tension in Dane County’s Catholic community, where more liberal-leaning rank-and-file Catholics have at times been at odds with a more conservative Diocese of Madison leadership, most notably former Bishop Robert Morlino, who died in 2018.
St. Maria Goretti parishioners have chafed at what they see as a more antiquated and inaccessible Mass since the Rev. Monsignor Mike Burke stepped down from full-time ministry in 2017 and was ultimately replaced in 2019 by Emerson.
Membership has since slipped by more than 200 people to about 6,700. Burke died last year.
“I’ve had dozens and dozens of friends that have left the parish,” said Karla Bullock, a church member who has three children, two at the school and one who’s a graduate. “The Masses are now more of like a Latin aspect decades ago. … Volunteers have left that have spent decades of their life volunteering for their church.”
More recently, parents and staff at the parish’s school, which serves children in prekindergarten through eighth grade, have complained about Schell and some of his decisions and past connections, and an associated departure of many longtime staff.
Before he was hired by Emerson, Schell served as principal of Elm Lawn Elementary School in the Middleton-Cross Plains School District, but had also been a longtime member of St. Mary of Pine Bluff, including serving for a time as chair of the church’s pastoral council, in rural Cross Plains.
St. Mary’s priest, the Rev. Richard Heilman, had been making regular appearances on a right-wing podcast in which the host and his guests often criticized or spread misinformation about government attempts to control the COVID-19 pandemic.
Schell in August said he wasn’t aware of Heilman’s views on the pandemic response, but said, “whatever Father Heilman’s views are, that does not affect me as a principal.”
Schell also drew criticism on Aug. 13 for announcing that masks would be optional this year at the school. He also shared with some parents a nine-page list of links to studies or articles purportedly questioning the effectiveness of masks and pointing to their alleged negative health effects.
The school later reversed course on the mask requirement, in line with Dane County’s indoor mask mandate. Other Diocese churches had already chosen to require masks before Dane County issued a new indoor mask mandate, however.
The petition asks for a “thorough investigation” of the process that led to Schell’s hiring, working conditions at the school and opinions about the school’s and the parish’s direction amid “unprecedented turmoil” since Schell came on board.
But Lancaster said in his letter that while such a request “reflects how a public school district may operate, it does not align with how Catholic, parochial schools are normally administered under Church law.”
Under that law, “the parish pastor retains sole authority in all matters of the parish and school,” he said.
Schell and Emerson did not respond Tuesday to a request for comment.