The first tuition payment for the 2015-2016 school year at Waldron Mercy Academy in Philadelphia is due Wednesday. How many families will choose to meet this deadline, however, is unclear. A number in this tight-knit community of parents plan to withhold payment to protest the recent firing of long-time religious education director Margie Winters.
Winters’s dismissal shares some similarities with the firings of staff and teachers from Catholic schools around the country in recent years: personal details (in this case, a same-sex marriage) come to light; a disapproving parent lodges a complaint; a beloved figure is relieved of duties; students and parents rally in support. While such movements may lose steam in the face of long odds against reinstatement, the parent community of Waldron thinks it can keep the pressure up through the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia so that it will still be an issue when Pope Francis visits in September. And an open letter to Francis from Winters’s wife, Andrea Vettori, that is now being shared across social media and news outlets is providing further energy. “Waldron is a community that acts when there is a crisis,” said Diana Moro, who is in charge of the Facebook page StandWithMargie, which has garnered more than 10,000 likes in just over a week.
How realistic are their hopes?
In many ways the rhetoric of Winters’s supporters resembles that of similar protests: optimism pinned both on comments from Francis (“Who am I to judge?”) and the “example of compassion and acceptance” (as one parent told me) he sets, tempered by realism over matters of doctrine and lines of authority. But also driving the campaign is what several parents have described as especially deep feelings of anger and grief at the decision of the school, which is run by the Sisters of Mercy and enrolls about five hundred students. “The sense of betrayal people are feeling is mammoth,” said Moro, parent of a recent graduate and a seventh-grader who’s been at the school since pre-k. “We thought it was not part of the archdiocesan machine, because we didn’t want a school that was part of the archdiocese. I had reservations about sending a daughter to a Catholic school,” she explained, since she was raised Catholic but left the church in her mid-20s. “I thought of the Sisters of Mercy as Jesuits in skirts – social justice, and honesty, and outreach, and always knowing there’s someone in this world with less than you. These were values I wanted them to pass to my children.”
A number of parents say they will pull their children out of Waldron in the wake of Winters’s dismissal. Miriam Hill, whose son was set to enter second grade, predicted a quick initial exodus of families, followed by a slower, longer, but inexorable one. “This was a place that was bringing people back to the church,” she said. “And the message is, we don’t want you. Which is a shame because it’s been a wonderful place, and I don’t want it to be seen as a bigoted school.”
The news of Winters’s firing reached parents the evening of Friday, July 3, in the form of an email from Waldron principal Nell Stetser. Without mentioning Winters’s marital status directly, she noted the school’s obligations as a Catholic institution answerable to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia:
While specific [Waldron] employment decisions are confidential and not discussed, I am sharing the context in which I made this decision. … Along with the Sisters, our school recognizes the authority of the Archbishop of Philadelphia, especially in the teaching of religion, because we call ourselves Catholic.
The archdiocese, for its part, says it had no direct hand in the decision, though some reports say a single complaint made by one parent directly to the archdiocese is what set Winters’s dismissal in motion. In a statement Monday, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput praised the administration, saying he was “very grateful” that it took action. “They’ve shown character and common sense at a moment when both seem to be uncommon,” he said. (This came after his recent column on the latest Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage: “We cannot provide for the family by undercutting the privileged place in our culture of a woman and a man made one flesh in marriage,” he wrote of the Obergefell decision. “Nations that ignore these truths - no matter what their intentions - are laying the cornerstone of war and suffering.”)
Chaput’s comments have stoked further anger among parents, who take them as a direct insult. They also want to know why Winters -- whose marriage she informed the school of when recruited and hired in 2007 -- is being fired now, eight years into what all agree has been an exemplary tenure. “She got the kids excited about religious instruction,” Hill said. “She was helping them to be religious in an era when that’s very difficult.” Winters “has led a perfect example of Christian service,” Moro added. “She has taught the kids so much about the joy of doing service for others.”
According to Moro, more than $12,000 has been raised in a GoFundMe campaign to help Winters make up for lost livelihood; the StandWithMargie page has attracted followers from around the world and prompted offers of help from a number of advocacy groups. Philadelphia Democratic mayoral nominee Jim Kenney, a Catholic school graduate, has also called on Waldron to reinstate Winters. More than 11,000 people have signed an online petition in support. But another blow was delivered Monday when Sr. Patricia Vetrano, president of the Sisters of Mercy Mid-Atlantic Community, forcefully affirmed the dismissal of Winters “as a final decision which will not be reversed or modified.”
Moro -- a lawyer who has also worked as a journalist and a political campaigner -- is nonetheless still looking ahead. “What’s going to keep this ball rolling is that in eleven weeks the pope will be here.” And others continue to take inspiration from Winters herself. At a meeting with Waldron families last week, she and Vettori entered holding hands. ”Everyone stood up and cheered,” Hill said. “Amazingly, Margie did not seem angry.” Winters then led a prayer that one parent described as in the “spirit of mercy, tolerance, and acceptance. It was who we are.”