UNCASVILLE, Conn. — Graduates of a Catholic school are vying with an unknown bidder to try to save the property from being sold to help pay victims of clergy sex abuse.
“We think it’s wrong that the school is getting sold. Obviously, what happened is wrong — that abuse occurred. And the solution is another crime, frankly — to sell this school, with this great education, and deprive future generations of this experience. We want to preserve this experience for those kids,” said Kyle Klewin, 45, founder of a construction company and a member of Saint Bernard School’s class of 1995.
Klewin and Jeffrey Londregan, 52, a lawyer and a 1989 graduate, co-founded Saints Country LLC, a limited liability company trying to buy the school property from the diocese. Their plan is to make the school an independent entity under the spiritual but not financial direction of the local bishop.
Londregan’s father graduated from the school in 1962 (when it was located in nearby New London); his daughters graduated in 2018 and 2022, respectively.
“I saw how it made my dad a great father, and I saw what it did for me, and I see what it did for my young daughters, to make them great adults. It’s creating special students there, and it’s worth saving,” Londregan told the Register.
The school property is among the assets the diocese will likely have to give up as part of a bankruptcy proceeding. In July 2021, the diocese filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in federal court to protect itself from creditors — chiefly victims of sex abuse by clerics that took place elsewhere in the diocese, unconnected to the school.
The Day, a newspaper in New London, has reported that 143 people who say they were sexually abused by clerics and staff of the diocese are represented by a committee in the diocese’s bankruptcy case. Several dozen of those claims — 54 as of July 2021, according to court papers filed by the diocese at that time — are from men who say they were sexually abused at a former residential school for troubled boys called Mount Saint John Academy.
The reported abuse at the school occurred between 1990 and 2002, according to The Day. The current head of the Norwich Diocese, Bishop Michael Cote, took over in 2003. A spokesman for the bishop did not respond to requests from the Register for comment.
As for Saint Bernard School, the questions are: Who will get the school property? And will the school stay open?
According to sources familiar with the proceedings, an unnamed entity acting through a lawyer initially bid $6 million for the school building and the school’s 113-acre campus. A limited liability company formed by alumni then bid $6.2 million. A second unnamed bidder — which some say is actually the first bidder — has subsequently offered $6.5 million.
On March 1, David Collins, a columnist for The Day, floated the idea that the secret bidder is The Mohegan Tribe, a federally recognized Indian tribe that owns and operates a casino called Mohegan Sun near the school property.
Spokesmen for the casino and the tribe did not respond to requests for comment from the Register.
Saint Bernard School, which is co-sponsored by the Diocese of Norwich and the Xaverian Brothers, serves about 400 boys and girls in grades 6 through 12. It sits atop a hill in Uncasville, a village of Montville, a town of about 18,000 in southeastern Connecticut. It’s about 8 miles north of the coastal city of New London and about 4 miles south of Norwich, the seat of the diocese, which consists of four counties in eastern Connecticut plus one parish on Fishers Island in New York.
Tuition for the current school year is $8,900 for the middle school and $14,000 for the high school. About 60% of students receive financial aid. About 49% come from racial minorities, mostly Asian, Latino and African American.
The school is financially viable but has no endowment. Tuition doesn’t cover operating costs, so the school relies heavily on donations, said head of school Donald Macrino, in an interview in his office last week.
Macrino spent 41 years in public education before taking over at Saint Bernard nine years ago.
“There’s something really, really special about this place,” Macrino said. “We have found it’s a very attractive alternative for many people to the public school. Discipline is not an issue here. Parent involvement is not an issue here, because every kid has someone at home who has made the decision to send him here. So we know there’s someone involved. For this option to go away would be very, very sad for eastern Connecticut.”
Macrino said the school hasn’t yet felt financial consequences from the uncertainty over its property. But many are expressing concern about the school.
The most recent bid from the unknown bidder (known as Thames River Acquisitions LLC) comes with an offer to allow the school to stay at the property for up to five years to allow it time to move, according to a story published The Day late last month.
“Concurrent with the submittal of a draft purchase and sale agreement to the Debtor, we offered the School a five-year lease for a monthly rate of one dollar,” said Sam Alberts, a lawyer in the Washington, D.C., office of the law firm Dentons, who is representing the unnamed bidder, by email to the Register.
That timeframe doesn’t solve the problem, school officials say.
“And of course, in a private middle-high school, that’s a death knell, because people are not going to invest in a seven-year education if there are five years left,” Macrino said.
Macrino told the Register the bishop would prefer that the alumni organization buy the property and keep the school open.
To raise money for the purchase, the alumni organization, Saints Country LLC, is using the online fundraising mechanism of an existing foundation with ties to the school.
Students on Board
The Register spoke with several students in the building at the end of a recent school day.
Kiley Flores-Nahue, 16, a sophomore who started at Saint Bernard in the sixth grade, said the school is “like a big family.” Its uncertain prospects concern her.
“It makes me feel worried. My sister went here for seven years. I’ve been a part of the community a long time. So to think I could possibly not graduate is really upsetting,” she said.
James Niles, 14, a freshman, is the youngest of four boys. His three older brothers all graduated from Saint Bernard.
“I think it’s a great school. The community is great. No one’s really mean to each other. Everyone here is a friend to each other. The education is great, too,” he said.
Dan O’Brien, 18, a senior who is planning to become a registered nurse, has long-standing family ties to the school. His mother is the librarian; two older brothers graduated from the school; his parents met at the school when they were students there (Class of 1990); an aunt and an uncle went there; and his grandmother taught theology there.
He praised the teachers, the educational offerings, and the atmosphere, saying the school teaches respect and the value of religion.
When he was younger, he said, he found going to Mass a chore.
“When I came here, I learned the importance of why — why it matters so much and how I could live my life as a Roman Catholic,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien graduates this spring, so the school’s future doesn’t affect him directly. But he said he worries about students who come after him.
“I grew into the person I was supposed to be,” O’Brien said. “I hope the school stays open, because it has the ability to help those kids become what they’re supposed to be.”
This story was updated after posting.