MOBILE, Ala. — On January 5th, the governing board of Heart of Mary Catholic School in Mobile, Alabama announced that the 121-year-old institution would be closing at the end of the school year, due to a mounting budget deficit and low enrollment.
Less than 90 days—and more than $450,000—later, the local archbishop announced the opposite, following an international campaign led by high-powered alumni and other donors to save one of the nation’s most historic Black Catholic schools.
The second independent setup for the school in less than two years involves the dissolution of the current board and the total independence of the new board and school finances from the Archdiocese of Mobile.
“There were people praying for this institution all over the world,” said former municipal judge Karlos Finley, who served as the HOM board secretary and is one of three alums who helped lead the fundraising effort.
“In this instance, God's will is being done.”
Finley and two fellow HOM alums, retired major general J. Gary Cooper and former US secretary of labor Alexis Herman, began a GoFundMe in January to address the school’s forecasted $300,000 deficit, following the announcement of its closure by board president John McNichol, Jr.
By February 24th, the school had raised roughly half of its $350,000 goal—with the held of various alumni (including former US surgeon general Dr. Regina Benjamin) and other supporters, as well as a donation of $75,000 from the Entergy Foundation.
Two days later, the fundraising goal had been surpassed by almost $115,000.
Notably, McNichol’s name is absent from the list of nearly 270 donors—as are the names of all the HOM board members except Finley and Lamar Lott, two of its three African Americans. (The other four members—including the president, vice president, and treasurer—are White.)
Speaking with BCM this week, Finley noted that the decision to close the school was fraught.
“The vote was taken on an evening when there were two board members not present,” Finley said, adding that he was one of the two.
“But there was still a quorum, so the vote at that meeting was unanimous.”
Finley noted that board had been told there was not enough money or students to operate the school for the 2022-23 school year, which reflects the announcement released to the media thereafter—namely, the retired local journalist Bob Grip.
HOM had faced similar issues during its time as a parochial school connected to Most Pure Heart of Mary Catholic Church, a parish founded and administered by the Society of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart (aka the Josephites), a religious society of priests and brothers serving African Americans.
According to Finley, the parochial school was effectively closed by the church's current pastor, Fr Bura Koroba, SSJ, who began his service at the church in 2020. Koroba himself denies this, explaining that the decision to transition to a new model was made by the archdiocese and passed on to him upon his arrival. The previous pastor, Fr Kenneth Ugwu, SSJ, is said to have been an ardent supporter of HOM before his ouster that same year.
HOM would soon reorganize as an independent Catholic school—though as a corporation with Mobile’s Archbishop Thomas Rodi as its sole member, according to a September 2020 legal filing obtained by BCM. One of its board members, Gwendolyn Byrd, also serves as the superintendent for Catholic schools in the archdiocese.
The reorganization was billed as a breath of fresh air for HOM, which would revamp its finances, lease its property from the archdiocese, and remain a Catholic school in good standing.
However, some prominent local members of the HOM community were concerned that the school had ever faced closure in the first place.
Ronald “Rocky” Horner, a lifelong MPHM parishioner and HOM alum who previously served as the school’s principal, expressed dismay “that anyone could shut down [such] a school, regardless of the number of students that are enrolled in it.”
“At one point in time, it was illegal for our people to be able to read and write,” he said.
“I just can't fathom closing a place that educates us… [You have to] do what needs to be done to keep it going.”
Others with family connections to the school dating back generations, saw the unconventional independent setup—with its markedly close ties to the bishop—as nothing more than a smokescreen.
"The way it [was] set up, Heart of Mary [was] screwed,” one alumnus stated, speaking anonymously.
Such fears appeared justified by the time the HOM GoFundMe reached its goal, which was reportedly suggested as a path to survival by the school’s board leaders. As late as March 10th—just two weeks before Rodi announced the school would remain open—McNichol was quoted in local media saying low enrollment superseded the hundreds of thousands of dollars raised.
“It never made sense,” said Horner.
“Once the GoFundMe raised the $300,000 that was asked by the board to have by a certain time, it shouldn't have mattered if 30 students were registered or 300 students were registered. The money was then there regardless to stay operational for another year and then figure something out.”
McNichol had also reportedly canceled a scheduled board meeting on Tuesday, March 8th to reconsider the closure decision, according to Finley.
Asked how a resolution was ultimately reached, Finley eschewed much analysis.
“God took control. I can’t put it any clearer than that,” he said.
“God and one person is a majority.”
Even so, one major aspect of the school’s continuation next year will be the formation of a new—and apparently more independent—board and legal entity for HOM, according to a statement released by Rodi on March 25th.
“National and local Heart of Mary School alumni have offered to take responsibility for [its] continued existence,” he said.
“A new corporation and a new governing board are in the process of being formed independent of the Archdiocese of Mobile.”
Rodi also noted that “new requests from parents to send their children to Heart of Mary” played a role in the decision, upending the claims of McNichol in the media roughly a week prior. Finley notes that the school presently receives “five to ten calls a day regarding enrollment”.
Other members of the HOM community, including alumni and parishioners of the Most Pure Heart of Mary, have expressed joy at the news of the school’s future—and noted the implications of the successful fundraiser.
“The GoFundMe was able to do in roughly two months what the board had been trying to do for years,” said Horner.
“Once the public was made aware of what was going on, the alumni and community, both near and far, pulled together to save our school.”
Finley called the campaign “a team effort”, and noted that the global pandemic hampered plans the board had made for HOM’s outreach efforts, alongside a revamped school structure and curriculum.
“The plan was to go out to visit other Catholic churches that did not have schools attached to them. And we were going to go visit, daycares and develop relationships there,” he said.
“As soon as we got all of that put together, COVID-19 hit. So it really shot us in the foot.”
Now, with the attention received across the country in support of HOM, and the GoFundMe still accepting donations, the future of the school looks bright.
“It is truly an amazing thing to see,” Finley said.
“[There were] the three partners that were kind of at the helm of this thing, but the number one partner was God.”
Correction (5/1/2022): This story has been updated with comments from Fr Bura Koroba, SSJ, the pastor of Most Pure Heart of Mary Catholic Church, concerning the transition of the parochial school to its first independent board in 2020.
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, a seminarian with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).