Is Jack Connors the Last King of Boston?

WHAT A GROUP. That’s all Sister Gail Donahue could think. For 49 years she’d been a teacher and administrator at Catholic schools in the Boston Archdiocese, and now to have two well-known business leaders — Liberty Mutual’s Ted Kelly and EMC’s Joe Tucci — sitting across the table from her, here in her teachers’ lounge? I’ve read their names in newspapers, she thought. Wait till the sisters hear about this.

[sidebar]The man who had organized the meeting stood behind Sister Gail on that October day in 2009, wearing the preferred outfit of his nominal retirement: crisp white shirt, tie, gray pants. At 67, Jack Connors still moved with the insouciance of the self-assured. His hair was white but not so wispy that he couldn’t still part it; his shoulders remained broad, his build slim, his cheeks forever ruddy, as if he had just finished laughing at a joke he’d made.

Connors told the men how, four years earlier, Archbishop Seán O’Malley had said that some of the archdiocese’s schools were under threat of closure. The Archbishop had asked if there was anything Connors could do to help. Connors could do a lot. He not only raised millions; he also altered the way the archdiocese thought about schools. Why should neighboring parishes compete for the dwindling number of parents interested in a Catholic education for their children? Why not pool resources and build parochial academies?

This school, Pope John Paul II in Dorchester, was one of four such academies the church had built. Outside was only a mangled stretch of Columbia Road, but inside, as Kelly and Tucci had just seen on a tour, were refurbished floors, clean halls, bright rooms, and children of every color, religion, and income level.

What Connors needed now, he said, was for his guests to consider their own education, and how they had benefited from it. The room went quiet. He then asked the campus’s principal, Claire Barton Sheridan, and Sister Gail, its director of guidance and health, to speak. When it was Sister Gail’s turn, she cited what the money Connors raised had provided: books that weren’t 22 years old, hot meals, an office that handled tuition so that she and her fellow teachers could, well, teach. The academy teaches what she and Principal Sheridan like to call the “whole child.” Though the school has standard hours, the building’s doors are open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., which gives harried parents a chance to keep their children off the cruel streets, and gives their kids a place to learn about gardening, or physical fitness, or music. Ninety-seven percent of students in the Boston Archdiocese go on to college.