Bishop Donahue Closure Saddens Community

EDITOR’S NOTE: Through Friday, The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register present the Ohio Valley’s top 10 stories of 2017, as voted on by the newspapers’ editors.

McMECHEN — Bishop Donahue High School graduated its final class in May after more than 60 years as a fixture in the McMechen community, as declining enrollment prompted the Roman Catholic Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston to shutter the school.

But, even without students in its halls, the building continues serving the community, as the city of McMechen is leasing space inside the structure for temporary municipal offices as the city building remains damaged by July flash flooding.

The diocese announced in January the school would close at the end of the school year.

Officials said of the 110 students enrolled there for the previous school year, only 15 of them were freshmen.

The Most Rev. Michael Bransfield, bishop of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, penned an open letter to students, parents and the community at large, defending the diocese’s decision to close the school, saying that consolidation with Wheeling Central Catholic High School would open new avenues and opportunities for students.

“The students would receive the benefit of new STEM labs, classrooms with integrated technology, a renovated gym and other amenities that will support the learning process,” Bransfield wrote. “There is sufficient room at Central Catholic High School for current students at Bishop Donahue, and their added numbers would certainly benefit the learning experience for all, making new opportunities available in academics, service learning and athletics.”

The decision prompted outcry from the community, with a candlelight vigil being held outside Bransfield’s home in protest a few days later.

Later, community organizers rallied together under the Save Bishop Donahue Foundation to continue their efforts in a unified manner.

The foundation collected donations to try to keep the school open, although Bransfield said in a later statement that the amount collected would not cover the school’s expenses for even a single pay period.

The foundation enlisted the help of canon lawyer Philip Gray, president of the St. Joseph Foundation, a regional advocate for Catholic parishioners’ rights.

Gray’s role was to assist in mounting an ecclesiastical legal defense on behalf of the community against the diocese, up to and including appealing to the Holy See itself.

However, the foundation’s efforts failed to achieve the desired result, as the school’s final classes were held May 16, with 30 students taking home diplomas during commencement ceremonies later that month.

“It made me both angry and sad, but I was also hopeful for things to come,” graduating senior Madyson Keller said of the school’s closure. “I hope underclassmen can continue to live out the Donahue tradition of serving others and they can keep their faith in Christ. I hope they never forget they’re a Bishop.”

The remaining students were offered the option to finish their schooling at Central. Many students made the move, with others entering the public school system in Marshall County, or exploring alternate options, such as Bellaire’s St. John Central High School.

Wheeling Central Principal Becky Sancomb said 17 students from Bishop Donahue enrolled at the school for the current year — and although she said she couldn’t speak for all of them, she believes their experience so far has been positive.

“They were in a very difficult position of having to change schools, but they’ve made the best of it. They’ve gotten involved at the various activities and I think they’ve been welcomed. … These are wonderful young people, from another small, private school. They’re meeting our high expectations with some of our requirements. It’s positive on our faculty end, as well,” Sancomb said.

In the wake of the closure, spokesman Tim Bishop said the diocese would examine future plans to use the building to serve the community through Catholic ministries or other programs. In December, McMechen city officials entered into an agreement with the diocese to lease the structure for emergency use on a month-by-month basis.

“The Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston is extremely pleased to be able to offer the building to the city of McMechen,” Bishop said.

“It is our hope they will use the building for as long as they like as it remains a centerpiece of the community.”

The Bishop Donahue building also serves charitable efforts through Appalachian Outreach, which uses space there to store supplies and resources for upcoming outreach efforts.

“We’re part of the long-term recovery committee, and we do maintain a room and supplies at the school for us to have our meetings,” Appalachian Outreach Executive Director Rose Hart said.

“We’ll keep the supplies for some of our team members when they arrive. Our first group will be on Jan. 7. … Our case workers go out into the field to see who has unmet needs, what resources are available, and then they report back. If they need walls repaired, interior work, that sort of thing, then we match up them with the project.”

The January project, Hart said, will assist people with home repair work. In March, another group will come to assist with lawn care, after last summer’s floods and subsequent cleanup ruined the yards of dozens of homes in the city.

“We’ll also be looking at other projects that still need skilled labor, to help them work toward recovery,” Hart said.