The board of directors of a Chesterfield school run by a troubled Catholic order has reached a tentative deal with a different order in an effort to remain open and affiliated with the Roman Catholic church.
In a letter to parents obtained by the Post-Dispatch, the new lay board of Gateway Academy said that as the school's founding order — the Legionaries of Christ — prepared to leave the St. Louis area, the Benedictine monks of St. Louis Abbey had agreed to step in to oversee the school. The Abbey operates St. Louis Priory, a Catholic school for boys in grades 7 to 12 in Creve Coeur.
Earlier this year, the Legion handed over control of Gateway to a lay board as part of a larger reorganization intended to help the order survive a storm of controversy over its founder. Last spring, Pope Benedict XVI ordered an overhaul of the Legion after revelations of child abuse by the late Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado.
Also last year, parents and former school officials of Gateway met with St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson to voice complaints that school leaders, including Legion priests, undermined parental authority. There were no allegations of sexual misdeeds.
In the letter dated Friday, the board members said the final documents had not been approved by Carlson, who is recuperating from knee surgery and under doctor's orders to refrain from work until March 4.
Gateway board member Steve Notestine said because the board was under pressure to have parents commit by Friday to sending their children to Gateway next school year, it sent the letter out before the deal was finalized and without the knowledge of the archdiocese or St. Louis Abbey.
"Because we have had an offer of affiliation with a Catholic religious order, things have changed dramatically for the better, and we thought it was appropriate to send parents a confidential update for their consideration," Notestine said. "Our first requirement is to our parents."
The lay arm of the Legion, called Regnum Christi, ran Gateway from its founding in 1992 until the Legion itself took control in 2005. In 2009, the Legion closed the high school because it could not enroll enough students. Enrollment at Gateway — now pre-K through eighth grade — has continued to decrease.
The board's letter told parents that the school needed at least 105 students to operate next academic year.
The Rev. Abbot Thomas Frerking, head of St. Louis Abbey, said he had not seen the letter until Saturday evening. He said he would not use the word "affiliation" for the Abbey's proposed role at Gateway.
"We feel a lot of families appreciate what the school has done for their children, so we've simply offered to help with whatever arrangement the archdiocese requires for them to remain a Catholic school," Frerking said.
Frerking said the "condition" by which the Abbey has agreed to help was that "the Legion would withdraw completely by the end of this school year."
Carlson said the Benedictines had asked his permission to affiliate with the school.
"Since there is excellent cooperation between the Abbey and the Archdiocese of St. Louis, we obviously would have not problem with the Benedictines being involved with Gateway Academy," Carlson said in a statement to the Post-Dispatch.
The archbishop also said a religious community, the archdiocese or an "Association of the Lay Faithful" has to own a school for it to be recognized as Catholic.
"The question that still needs to be determined is 'Who owns the school?'" Carlson said.
Jim Fair, a spokesman for the Legion said ownership discussions "are still underway."
The school building and property is currently owned by the Gateway Educational Foundation, which is controlled by the Legion.
When the Legion announced its departure in January, school officials said representatives from the order would return "on a semi-monthly basis" to offer spiritual guidance.
In the board's letter Friday, it said that as soon as the school's affiliation with the Benedictines was official "the new board will release the Legion from its offer to visit the school on a regular basis next year."
It also said a Benedictine monk will join the new board.
The Legion's January agreement included a provision allowing the lay board to use the school facilities next year free of rent.
A source familiar with the deal, who asked not to be identified because the negotiations were ongoing, said ownership of Gateway will stay with the Legion, which will lease the building to the school.
Similarly, the Legion's specialized curriculum will remain in place, as will school leaders, some of whom are affiliated with Regnum Christi.