By Squirrel Staff

The first thing you notice when you walk through the front doors of Catherine McAuley High School is a giant bulletin board emblazoned with WOW! The board, which is updated regularly, highlights the achievements of individual McAuley students. On the day this reporter visited the school, the list of accomplishments was impressive. One student had recently been chosen as a National Merit Scholar finalist. Another had spent the summer doing volunteer work in China. A third had signed a letter of intent to play basketball for a prestigious university. Three more had been selected for the prestigious District 2 Chorus Festival. Looking at the students celebrated on the WOW! board, and at the others gathered nearby to study and quietly socialize after a long day of classes, it would be hard to guess that the school is in the midst of one of the most significant transitions in its history. On July 1, after a nearly six decade-long affiliation with the Sisters of Mercy, McAuley will formally cut its ties with the Sisters and with the Roman Catholic Church.

Catherine McAuley Head of School Kathryn Barr
Catherine McAuley Head of School Kathryn Barr with students at an after school drama  rehearsal, photo by Squirrel Staff

Founded in 1969 with the merger of St. Joseph’s Academy and Cathedral High School, both all-girls parochial schools, McAuley has shared a partnership with the Catholic order of the Sisters of Mercy since the school’s inception. The McAuley name is a tribute to the order’s foundress, Sister Catherine McAuley, who saw women’s education as a key to social change. The school building sits on the grounds of the Sisters’ Motherhouse, and many of the Sisters taught or worked at the school over the decades. But in recent years, like so many other religious communities in the United States, the Sisters have struggled with dwindling numbers and the realities of an aging population. In 2005 the Stevens Avenue Motherhouse was closed as a residence, and the remaining Sisters moved into houses or apartments. Around the same time, the Sisters put the Motherhouse property, including the McAuley building and site, up for sale.

When a potential buyer stepped forward in 2014, McAuley’s future at its current site was called into question. The developer, Sea Coast Properties, who plans to build a retirement community on the property, eventually offered a long-term lease to the school, giving McAuley a measure of security. But while the issue of whether McAuley would be allowed to remain in its present location had been resolved, the future of its partnership with the Sisters was still in question. As the Sisters looked to divest themselves of their responsibilities, relinquishing their sponsorship of McAuley seemed more and more inevitable. At the same time, the board of trustees and administrators at McAuley began to question if their relationship with the Sisters, whose governance had switched from being a local Maine entity to a regional one based in Rhode Island, was still the best way to serve their students. Finally, after much discussion and debate, the decision was made for McAuley to become fully independent. In the end, says Head of School Kathryn Barr, it all came down to “trying to figure out how to provide the best for our students.”

There is no doubt that independence will bring its share of challenges. While the Sisters of Mercy do not offer direct financial assistance to the school, their support as educators and their patronage as landlords have been a huge resource for the school. But Head of School Barr is singularly enthusiastic about McAuley’s future. “It was like a jolt of caffeine,” she says of the decision, noting that the transition has forced the community to reevaluate their fundamental identity and ask the question, “If we aren’t Catholic, who are we?” The resounding answer, says Barr, is that McAuley is first and foremost a girls’ school. In fact, it is currently the only all girls’ school, primary or secondary, in the state of Maine. It’s a mantle the community wears proudly.

“We want to provide not just equal opportunity, but every opportunity for our girls,” Barr explains, adding, “the research is very clear that an all-girl environment is extremely beneficial.” As one student noted, “at McAuley every leader is a woman, from the student body president to captain of the basketball team.” Being an all-girls’ school also allows McAuley to focus on women’s education in a unique way, giving young women, who at traditional schools often shy away from science and technology classes, an opportunity to focus on these disciplines. At McAuley, they take the traditional STEM education model a step further, adding an ‘A’ for arts. The school’s unique STEAM curriculum integrates science, technology, engineering and the arts with a strong ethics component.

Ethics and faith have long played a role in the McAuley curriculum, and will continue to do so even after McAuley becomes independent from the Catholic Church. According to Head of School Barr, the school has no plans to change its religious education curriculum. “Knowing about religion is important to understanding the world,” Barr notes. But she is careful to add that McAuley has always welcomed students of all faiths. Currently, only about a third of the school’s student body identifies as Catholic. Indeed, a quick tour of the school reveals an extremely diverse community, including many Muslim students and new Mainers. The school also currently hosts ten international students, a number they are hoping to expand in coming years.

The school currently hosts ten international students, a number they are hoping to expand in coming years.
The school currently hosts ten international students, a number they are hoping to expand in coming years. Photo by Squirrel Staff

As McAuley severs its official ties with the Sisters of Mercy, the school has begun to look outward for other partnerships. In January they signed an agreement with their neighbor, the University of New England, which allows McAuley students who complete a rigorous academic program to earn up to 30 college transfer credits, potentially enabling the students to enter UNE as sophomores. Successful candidates will also be given priority consideration for admission and merit scholarships at UNE. McAuley also hopes to build additional partnerships with other schools in the neighborhood, and with women’s organizations throughout the state.

Transitions are never easy, but so far McAuley seems to be handling this one with the kind of grace and aplomb that would make its namesake proud. In a world where some still question a woman’s ability to lead our country, it’s nice to know that there are places dedicated to creating a new generation of female scholars and leaders. As Head of School Kathryn Barr puts it, “It’s just such a cool place to be.”