Dismissal of beloved St. Mark School principal provokes anger and disillusionment with the church

By Gary Walker and Joe Piasecki

Parents credit St. Mark School Principal Mary Ann McQueen with reviving the school

Dozens of parents whose children attend St. Mark School in Venice are crying foul over the impending removal of its popular principal by the pastor of St. Mark Church, whom they broadly accuse of abusing his power out of resentment for the school’s rising profile in the community.

More than 50 families contacted The Argonaut this week to voice support for St. Mark School Principal Mary Ann McQueen, who in six years increased enrollment in the K-8 parochial school from 183 to 300 students, oversaw campus renovations, increased student financial aid by a factor of five, and engaged families in fundraising efforts as well as service-learning projects.

Some angry parents say they might remove their kids from the school if McQueen is forced out; many more say they plan to stop attending or donating money to the church.

As pastor of the parish, Father Paul Spellman has complete authority over hiring decisions at the school, according to a Feb. 21 letter to parents by Auxiliary Bishop of Los Angeles Edward Clark. Parochial schools like St. Mark, unlike private Catholic schools, are “meant to be an integral component of the parish in fulfilling a pastor’s and a parish’s responsibility for evangelization,” writes Clark, who states support for Spellman’s decision.

Spellman, who arrived at St. Mark in 2014, declined to comment for this story, stating that “when dealing with employment issues, we are not at liberty to discuss them with anyone who is not a party to the situation.”

That apparently includes the advisory St. Mark School Board, which member Pammela Jackson says Spellman has prevented from meeting since the school year began in the fall.

Spellman previously moved to dismiss McQueen in April 2018, but she received an 11th-hour reprieve after parents and board members privately lobbied Spell-
man and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles to reconsider.

This time the gloves are starting to come off. In emails and conversations with The Argonaut, parents accuse Spellman of making no discernable effort to reconcile his unstated differences with McQueen, remaining detached from school affairs, and even showing outward contempt for church parishioners involved in the school.

“Here’s a man who is not a leader and doesn’t have any empathy for people. He doesn’t know any of the parents or children by name, and he doesn’t make an effort to learn them. When [McQueen] started to succeed I think his ego couldn’t handle it,” said Jackson, a Mar Vista resident whose son and daughter graduated from St. Mark.

A group of parents met Tuesday to explore options for challenging McQueen’s dismissal, including a public petition to the archdiocese.

“Last time we were heartbroken and sad, and this time we’re fired up and mad,” said Sarah Kelly, a filmmaker who enrolled her daughter at St. Mark four years ago after she had drifted away from the faith amid scandals plaguing the Catholic Church.

“There are many parents who were somewhat lapsed Catholics or were dismayed by the horrific sexual scandals and had left the church, but we’ve been inching back into the Catholic education and our faith because of the principal — not because of Father Paul,” she said.

St. Mark parent Tessa Goss said she plans to keep her daughter at St. Mark School because of the legacy McQueen has built, but don’t expect to see her
on Sundays.

“We’re going to stay, but we’re never going to attend church again [at St. Mark],” Goss asserted. “We’re disheartened and angry that the Catholic Church would put a man like this in charge of our children.”

According to the school’s website, Spellman is a former CPA who joined the seminary after volunteer work in the Catholic Chaplain’s Program at Central Juvenile Hall, a shelter for homeless youth and a shelter for homeless women and children. He was pastor of a church in South Los Angeles for nine years before St. Mark.

Parents who spoke to The Argonaut on condition of anonymity, some fearing their children might otherwise be asked to leave the school, say Spellman demonstrates an abiding love and admirable compassion for the less fortunate, but shows little interest in engaging with more affluent parishioners affiliated with the school.

In a Feb. 23 letter to parents stating that she did not receive a contract offer for the 2019-20 school year, McQueen wished the school continued success without her.

“As you can imagine, I am deeply disappointed by this decision. While this is not the outcome I expected or hoped for, I nonetheless care deeply about this community and want to see that it continues to grow and flourish under a new leader,” McQueen wrote.

In a Feb. 25 letter to parents, Spellman asked for faith in his judgment.

“Please know that this decision has been made with prayer, consultation, and discernment, involving a great number of people. This discernment has been taking place over the past several years, and I have made this difficult decision based on what I believe will help us to continue to make St. Mark School a place of faith, spirituality, and education for our students and their families,” he wrote.