Oblates to Leave Paul VI High School

FAIRFAX CITY — The Oblates of St. Francis de Sales will end their tenure at Paul VI High School in Fairfax prior to the start of the 2000 school year, according to an announcement Sept. 3 by Msgr. James W. McMurtrie (right), diocesan administrator. The decision was made public prior to the Labor Day holiday weekend during a meeting between Msgr. McMurtrie, Father Joseph G. Morrissey, Oblate provincial, and the Paul VI faculty and staff. There will be no immediate change in the Oblate presence at Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria, Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish in Vienna or St. John Neumann Parish in Reston. "The diocese did not ask the Oblates to leave," said Msgr. McMurtrie, who wanted to squelch any rumors that there was a conflict between diocesan officials and the Oblate community. "We would like to have them here forever. They have been here in the diocese for 37 years." The three Oblate principals at Paul VI "have been a blessing," Msgr. McMurtrie said. "They’ve generously shared their views and those of St. Francis de Sales with their students. They’ve put together a great faculty here. This is a great high school." Last week’s announcement may have caught some by surprise, but the Oblate community has been conducting a two-year study of its presence in schools and parishes throughout the Wilmington/Philadelphia province, which includes the Arlington Diocese. Like other religious communities, Oblate officials are faced with dwindling vocations. The Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary announced last year they were leaving the Cathedral of St. Thomas More School in Arlington after a 55-year association. The school has its first lay principal this year. Ironically, the Oblate Sisters from Philadelphia recently arrived in the diocese to staff the newest diocesan elementary school — Holy Cross Academy in Stafford. "I want to thank the diocese for allowing the Oblates to be involved with this institution since its inception," said Father Morrissey. Since taking over as provincial in January 1996, Father Morrissey and Oblate officials have recognized the need to develop a plan for their Salesian ministry. "The vocational crisis has effected us, and will continue to effect us," he said. There are 237 members in the Wilmington/Philadelphia Province. More than half of those are over 60 years of age. In contrast, there are 12 men currently in formation for the priesthood, and only two men will be ordained in January. "One of the most critical issues for us is to evaluate how we can minister most effectively," Father Morrissey said. The Oblates published a plan Sept. 1, with emphasis on refocusing the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales for the good of the Church. Father Morrissey said the Oblates are attempting to maintain their presence in five regions on the east coast, including six Oblate high schools. A difficult decision will have to be made in the Philadelphia Archdiocese, where the Oblates operate two well-known and respected schools — Father Judge and North Catholic. "We’ll be investing personnel and finances into the DeSales Spirituality Center in Washington, D.C.," Father Morrissey said. "We’ll be able to run programs with lay people out of that center." He said the decision to keep Father John W. Lyle, the current principal, and three other Oblate priests at Paul VI for the next two years was based on wanting minimal disruption to the school and a desire to complete the major capital campaign already undertaken for the enhancement of the physical plant. "This is not a pleasant task, but I’m sure we’ll be able to work together with God’s spirit of hope," Father Morrissey said. The Oblates have staffed Paul VI since the school first opened on Aug. 30, 1983. Father Donald Heet, O.S.F.S., was the founding principal. He was followed by Father Robert Mulligan, O.S.F.S., and Father Lyle. Former Arlington Bishop Thomas J. Welsh invited the Oblates to administer and staff the new school in 1982. The announcement of the school’s opening was one of Bishop Welsh’s last official acts before he left for the Allentown Diocese. Paul VI is located in a building formerly operated by George Mason University. The school first opened with 350 freshmen and sophomores. It assumed the Oblate motto, "Grow in Grace and Wisdom." It filled an immediate need for Catholic secondary education in Fairfax County. Within three years the school grew to 1,100 students. The first graduating class in 1986 had 120 students. The school has grown steadily during the past 15 years, reaching an enrollment of 1,200 this year. The school’s name was chosen to honor the pope who established the Arlington Diocese in 1974. Paul VI also was the first pope to visit the United States in 1965. The school opened during the 20th anniversary year of the Second Vatican Council, presided over by Paul VI. "The diocese is committed to this high school," Msgr. McMurtrie said. "This school is not going anywhere. We are not closing this high school because the Oblates are leaving. That would be a disservice to you (the faculty) and the Oblates. "This decision does not effect your jobs or the existence of this school," he said. "We’ll miss the Oblates. They’ve made their mark here. It was a sad day when Father Morrissey told me about their decision." Msgr. McMurtrie assured the faculty and staff that there will be a priestly presence on campus, even if the next bishop decides to appoint a lay principal. "On behalf of the diocese, I want to thank all of you for the great job you do," he said. "I hope the tradition of St. Francis de Sales will continue here, even without the Oblates."
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