Rift between parish and school resembles the distrust between ‘old’ and ‘new’ Venice

Our news coverage of parent consternation over St. Mark Church Pastor Paul Spellman’s decision to remove St. Mark School Principal Mary Ann McQueen and the resulting tsunami of letters to the editor in Fr. Spellman’s defense leaves a few unanswered questions. The most important: Where does the St. Mark community go from here?

Fr. Spellman has announced his impending resignation from the parish, citing personal health concerns and roiling turmoil in the parish after dozens of disillusioned families reached out to The Argonaut in a Hail Mary bid to save the educational leader of their school. This means Fr. Spellman and McQueen are both out as of June 30 — in secular terms, the chairman of the board is firing the CEO effective the day of his own resignation.

A pastoral coordinator has beseeched people on both sides of the issue to stop communicating with The Argonaut. That seems to have stemmed the flow of letters and online commentary, but this institutional mandate for silence has done little to alleviate parents’ concerns about the school’s future. And fair or not, the optics of a Catholic organization lacking transparency and asking for silence isn’t exactly a great PR strategy in this day and age.

Few may ever know exactly why Fr. Spellman decided to dismiss McQueen, as neither will discuss the matter publicly. Archdiocese support for Fr. Spellman and arguments coming from both sides suggest the church may have concerns that a parochial school under the authority of its local parish is beginning to operate more like an independent Catholic college prep academy.

At Saturday Mass, his last before a three-week Lenten spiritual retreat, Fr. Spellman reiterated his love for the parish while sharing his hard-thought decision to leave. He received an extended standing ovation from nearly 200 people in the pews. After the service, a parishioner introduced me to Fr. Spellman, who received me with warmth and grace. He took issue with our newspaper’s headline of parents painting him as a school bully, which I completely understand — that had to hurt.

I know that institutions rarely discuss personnel matters in public. But I don’t think parish officials have provided parents with clear and reassuring visions for the future of the school, its relationship to the parish, and its role in the broader community of Venice.

What stands out most is an almost tribalistic divide between parish and school, suggesting a lack of communication and empathy between these groups.

Many of Spellman’s defenders speak mainly of his good character. But some also cast families who support the school as wealthy newcomers seeking to control an independent fiefdom within the parish, the endgame being a college-prep curriculum at a fraction of private school tuition costs. Some use words like “gentrification” and “privilege” — the same words that some of Venice’s more established residents throw at newer arrivals they blame for skyrocketing housing costs and changing community character.

I’ve also noticed that some St. Mark School families trust the school a lot more than they do the church. McQueen is the reason many parents enrolled their children at St. Mark, despite lingering personal reservations about associating with a Catholic Church plagued by abuse and cover-up scandals for longer than their kids have been alive. A more parochial school may not appeal to them.

While some devoted churchgoers view parents challenging McQueen’s dismissal as bratty, self-centered and disrespectful, parents going to bat for McQueen — including those who otherwise speak highly of Fr. Spellman’s dedication to the parish — convey a genuine sense of duty to defend the quality of their children’s education. For young families in a society that’s become obsessed with the myth of “a good school” being the primary determining factor of a child’s future health and happiness, taking personal ownership of school affairs feels not like an intrusion but an obligation. They don’t trust the church’s closed-door meetings, and they worry McQueen’s removal will harm their kids.

I don’t know what’s going to heal the rift between St. Mark School and St. Mark Church, or for that matter “old” Venice vs. “new” Venice. But the inherent bias of journalism is that secrecy never serves truth or reconciliation. I’ve spoken to good-hearted, well-intentioned people on each side of this issue. My hope for St. Mark is that they start talking to each other.

Joe Piasecki

Managing Editor