Supporters of Heart of Mary Catholic School in Mobile, Alabama have begun a fundraising campaign to save the historic institution, whose board announced last month that it would close at the end of the school year.
A new GoFundMe started last month by the school’s board secretary, alumnus Karlos Finley, has raised more than $174,000 as of Thursday afternoon.
“[We] have created this escrow-type fundraiser to preserve our school’s 121-year legacy,” the description reads, adding that the school has been tasked with raising $350,000 by the end of February.
“We have designed this fundraiser to be an escrow-type account, meaning that if we do not reach our goal, we will return all funds raised back to our donors.”
Started by the Josephites in 1901, the school has since its founding served the needs of African Americans, whom the society of priests and brothers were created to serve less than a decade prior. The school's associated parish, Most Pure Heart of Mary Catholic Church, served as the founding location of the Knights of Peter Claver in 1909.
The school and parish’s long and storied history includes a sustained commitment to activism and advocacy, with the nuns and priests who worked at the school having protested for civil rights during the 1960s—occasioning a number of arrests.
“We were there,” Finley told local media.
“We were fighting for this community, and we will continue to fight for this community.”
The closure was announced early last month by local journalist Bob Grip, who cited statistics concerning the drop in enrollment over the last two decades at the school, said to be the last predominantly Black Catholic school in the region.
Grip, announcing the news on social media, quoted the Archdiocese of Mobile as saying that “while Heart of Mary has traditionally ministered to African-American students for about 120 years, the number of African-American students at nearby Catholic schools is similar to that of Heart of Mary”.
The archdiocese delayed their own public announcement of the closure for a week, posting a story in the archdiocesan newspaper on January 13th, detailing that the school—which has been independently operated since 2020—made the decision on their own, with the school’s board of directors later “notif[ying] the archdiocese of their decision”.
“This decision, made with a heavy heart, was based on the loss of community immediate to the school, the lack of students in attendance and inadequate funding,” said Jack McNichol, who serves as board president.
McNichol, who is White, is joined on the board by six other members, including vice president John O’Neill III, treasurer Charles Mayhall III, and Gwendolyn Byrd—all of whom are also White. African-American members include Finley and at-large members Lamar Lott and Cecilia Snider.
A second-generation graduate of Heart of Mary, who spoke with BCM on the condition of anonymity, criticized the current makeup of the board, calling McNichol “a crony of the bishops” and the board itself an extension of the archdiocese’s original attempt to close the school in 2019.
“It was doomed from the beginning,” the source said, detailing a list of concerns with the administration of the school under the independent board—including a previous principal who allegedly directed families of prospective Heart of Mary students to other schools in the area.
As such, the news of the impending closure strikes a particularly bitter chord.
“It just don't look good for Black Catholics in this area,” the source said.
John Reyes, a research director with the Roche Center for Catholic Education at Boston College, called the closure part of an “all too common” trend affecting students in “underserved communities”.
Heart of Mary was said by the board to be running at a $200,000 deficit at the end of the 2020-21 school year, and that number is expected to increase to $300,000 by the end of the current semester.
Neither Grip’s nor the archdiocese’s announcements made mention of the possibility of saving the school, but more than 150 donors have joined the surging fundraiser—which includes many of the school’s most notable longtime alumni advocates.
Chief among them are a trio of African-American history-makers, including retired major general J. Gary Cooper, former US secretary of labor Alexis Herman, and former US surgeon general Dr. Regina Benjamin. Herman has contributed $19,000 so far; Cooper and Benjamin have given $10,000 each.
The two largest contributions have come from anonymous donors within the past week, at $50,000 and $20,000 respectively.
Since mid-February, the school has been featuring testimonials on its Facebook page from students about their appreciation for the school, and as of Wednesday began sharing news of the fundraiser as well.
“If Heart of Mary School has ever meant anything to you, please donate, share, and help get the word out that we want to save our school, that our school is here to stay,” the post reads.
The school’s principal, Jekirra Johnson, also shared the fundraiser online earlier this week.
“Please consider donating,” she said in a social media post.
“My students [are] in a race against time.”
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).