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Future of Mercy High School building still up in the air

On March 12, 2018, the Diocese of Rockville Centre made a stunning announcement: Bishop McGann-Mercy High School in Riverhead would be no more.

A year later, the school that had become a home to generations of families sits unoccupied behind locked gates. The future of the property remains in limbo, with no clear answers yet on what will become of the school building.

Sean Dolan, director of communications for the Diocese of Rockville Centre, acknowledged that “several” entities have expressed interest in the property over the “past several months.” He declined to provide further specifics.

Bob Terry, representative from Friends of East End Catholic Education, a group that pushed for an independent Catholic school to open at the former Mercy property, said from what he understands the property is still available for purchase.

Representatives from Friends of East End Catholic Education met with Bishop John Barres last April to pitch the idea and develop a business plan for the potential school, Mr. Terry said.

“The bishop said his door would always be open, and we’d be able to meet with them,” he said. “He was very open to our idea of an independent Catholic high school.”

But at a follow-up meeting in August, the chief operating officer and general counsel for the diocese, Thomas Renker, revealed that the diocese has received an offer for the property in excess of $10 million last June. Mr. Terry and Shawn Leonard of Friends of East End Catholic Education attended that meeting.

Around that same time, the Riverhead Central School District and the diocese exchanged letters and emails regarding the status of the property, according to a report by RiverheadLocal. In a letter from May 10, 2018, the district expressed interest in acquiring the property prior to the closure.

But earlier this week, officials said “the district has not entered into any contract for the purchase of any real property.”

“Should the district ever seek to acquire this property or any other parcel of real property, the voters of the district would have to approve such a purchase before it could take place,” the district said in an email. “As part of that process, the district and the Board of Education would lay out their vision of how the potential acquisition would be used in future district operations.”

Mr. Terry said he never took the rumor of the district buying the property “seriously.”

“It takes a long time to get something like that done,” he said. “That’s not something that happens imminently within weeks of no one knowing it. That’s bizarre. I don’t think the diocese thought that, because I don’t think they’re that naive.”

He said he believes when the diocese told Friends of East End Catholic Education that the sale was nearly finalized, they were just trying to push the group away from it. He believes the diocese isn’t interested in getting the best value for the property.

“If you or I were trying to sell something, and we needed money, we would try to get the best value for it,” he said. “We wouldn’t be making a back room deal in secrecy.”A purchase of the site by the district would most likely require taxpayer approval for a referendum, he said.

Peconic Bay Medical Center’s proximity to the 24.81-acre Mercy property led many to wonder if the hospital would be interested.

Andrew Mitchell, CEO and President of PBMC, said in an email last week that the hospital has had no discussions with the diocese about purchasing the Riverhead property, nor have they been presented with a proposal.

“Like everyone else in the community, we are waiting to hear more about the diocese’s plans for the property,” he wrote.

Mr. Terry is the oldest of 10 children, all of whom attended Mercy. He also sent his three children to Mercy, the youngest of whom graduated in 2017. He said some people on the North Fork are struggling to keep their trust in the diocese after they’ve been unclear about the property status and recurring sexual abuse reports in the Roman Catholic Church.

“It doesn’t help that their actions of secrecy and being not truthful kind of go along with some of the bigger stories we hear about in the media,” he said. “It’s kind of easy to paint them all with the same brush.”

As previously reported in The Riverhead News-Review, two women recently reported they were sexually abused by priests, including John McGann, at St. Agnes Parish in Rockville Centre. Mr. McGann would later go on to be the Bishop of the Diocese of Rockville Centre. Mercy High School was renamed in memory of Bishop McGann in 2003.

Last October, the Diocese of Rockville Centre launched a compensation program for victims of sex abuse, a persistent conflict that has arisen in the Roman Catholic Church in the country.

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Photo caption: About one year ago, Diocese of Rockville Centre announced the closure of Bishop McGann-Mercy Diocesan High School in Riverhead. According to the diocese, several entities have expressed interest in the property over the past several months. (Kate Nalepinski photo)