The Diocese of Saint John donated this church property to Divine Mercy Catholic School. Photo courtesy Saint John diocese

Divine Mercy leaves struggling school debt free

  • May 7, 2022

In an act of “divine mercy,” the Diocese of Saint John has donated the former St. Peter’s church property to Divine Mercy Catholic School (DMCS) completely debt free.

In December 2021, Bishop Christian Riesbeck officially signed over ownership of the rectory building at the church to the school that had been renting the space from the diocese since 2009. As part of this arrangement, Holy Redeemer Parish in Saint John plans to give a portion of the former St. Peter’s Church property, including the gymnasium, the chapel and the land to the school in the New Brunswick city.

In the fall of 2020, Riesbeck approached the Redemptorist Province of Canada (Redemptorists), an order of priests who served the diocese out of the former St. Peter’s Church from 1884 to 2006, petitioning them to forgive the $200,000 principal repayment for the mortgage so property ownership could be given to DMCS debt-free. In return the diocese would forgive the greater debt of almost a million dollars for renovation of the building to turn it into a school.

“We had inherited a debt that we would never be able to repay,” said Judy Burnham, principal at DMCS. “There is just no way we would be able to pay back a million dollars. We paid our minimal amount since 2009. We knew that we were hardly making a dent because it was too huge a debt for us going from month to month with tuition fees and fundraisers and no government support. We would make ends meet, that’s just about it.

“It just kind of reminds me of what the Catholic Church always says, especially around Divine Mercy Sunday: ‘We have a debt of our sin that we cannot pay and that’s why Christ died on the Cross for us, so He could pay our debt.’ That’s exactly what happened to us.”

With no Catholic schools in Saint John, there was a great void for Catholic families. Burnham taught at one of the local high schools for years and later ran a home school where she raised her seven children. Given her teaching range and experience, the community found her to be a great fit to lead the school. Servicing kindergarten to Grade 8, they started with just 25 students in 2003 and have grown today to 111 with seven teachers.

Riesbeck, who grew up in Ontario’s publicly funded Catholic education system, says he understands its value and importance.

“As a product of Catholic education myself growing up in Ontario, and having seen firsthand the wonderful dedication of the DMCS administration and staff to providing a first-rate Catholic education to its students, we want to ensure the school will be able to continue its mission and leave a legacy behind for the benefit of present and future generations of young students and families who value Catholic education,” he said.

With growing enrolment numbers and waiting lists for many grades, having ownership of the school building means that DMCS can now focus on regular fundraising needs as well as capital projects to accommodate the growing student population. The Redemptorists were delighted to grant this request as a testament to the legacy of evangelization from their many years of service to the people of Saint John.

“Divine Mercy Catholic School is a treasure that the Lord has planted in this fertile field,” said Fr. Mark Miller, regional coordinator. “The Redemptorists feel that their legacy is not only being carried on but is being built up. May God continue to bless students, staff, supporters and the diocese through the wonderful gift of Divine Mercy Catholic School.”

The school is home to various sports teams, an internationally diverse student population and a nationally recognized choir. Its mission, Burnham says, is to love each child as Christ loves, and to educate the whole child, mind, body and spirit. It’s why so many parents value the education they are receiving at the school, she believes. They will continue to work to keep tuition affordable to ensure it doesn’t become out of reach for families.

In the climate of the world today, and given the favour and grace God has shown the school for close to two decades, Burnham says the name could not be more fitting.

“We first met to decide on the school on a Divine Mercy Sunday,” said Burnham. “It’s the Sunday after Easter so we looked back at that when we were deciding on a name and thought that’s really providential. ... We reiterate that name often when we’re talking to our students about how important it is for us to have mercy with each other and to have to really depend on God’s mercy.”

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