Hallahan endowments subject of legal battle

Hallahan Opening Day (1)
John W. Hallahan Catholic Girls’ High School opened in 1911 at 19th and Wood streets in Center City.
PHOTO: Friends of Hallahan

Students at John W. Hallahan Catholic Girls High School, for the final time, made their traditional leap in the Logan Circle fountain Friday, and its last senior class is graduating Monday.

Behind the scenes, a group that has fought with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to keep Hallahan open is waging a court battle over endowments left to the school over its 100-year history.

Additionally, the organization, which had, until recently, been called Friends of Hallahan, is raising money to establish a new all-girls secular school in Center City.

The group filed an Orphans’ Court petition in May to get a full accounting of the money donated by Mary McMichan, who funded the construction of the school, as well as contributions from alumnae and philanthropists.

Another aim is preventing the sale of the Hallahan building, which is on 19th Street just off the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. FOH has questioned whether the Archdiocese closed Hallahan to cash in on the property, which they say is worth tens of millions of dollars.

A judge issued an order prohibiting the sale or lease of the school facility pending a June 22 hearing on the petition.

“We are battling in the courts to ensure that the legacy of Mary E. H. McMichan and her tens of thousands of daughters are not erased,” FOH said in a statement Saturday.

Ken Gavin, a spokesman for the Archdiocese, said church leaders believe FOH has “no legal standing in the case.”

“The petition lacks foundation in law as well as fact,” he told Metro in an email. “The relief sought therein is contrary to the best interests of Hallahan’s current students and to Catholic education in the Philadelphia region.”

Flickr / sameold2010

In a separate petition, the Archdiocese is asking an Orphans’ Court judge to allow funds attached to Hallahan to be used for scholarships and tuition assistance for current Hallahan students attending other archdiocesan schools.

Some donors did not specify what would happen to their endowments if the school were to close, according to the Archdiocese.

Similar legal actions took place following the closures of North Catholic and Cardinal Dougherty high schools in 2010, Gavin said. He added that plans are underway to file a petition for Bishop McDevitt High School in Wyncote, which is also slated to shut down when the school year ends.

As for McMichan’s money, Gavin said there was nothing left of her original contribution after Hallahan was built in 1911. The remainder of her estate was transferred to the Archdiocese in 1976, and what’s left will be used to help Hallahan students over the next three years, he said.

A new Hallahan?

Meanwhile, FOH is moving forward with a proposal to form a private academy for girls in Center City to, they say, fill the void left by Hallahan’s closing.

It would be open to students in grades 7 through 12 and would not have a religious affiliation. The school would borrow from the best educational models available, said Nan Gallagher, a former Hallahan president who has agreed to be the academy’s board chair.

“I see a school that has the goodness of an all-girl education and the benefits of that, which is well-documented in literature, and then I see new innovative ways that we can deliver education to young women that will bring them into good-paying, definitive jobs for the 21st century and beyond,” she said in an interview.

Locations are being vetted, but, if it does come to fruition, the school will definitely be in Center City, which Gallagher said is “starving for a school for women.”

There is no concrete tuition number yet, though it will be less than other private academies in the region, she said.

FOH wanted to name the school after McMichan; however, the group said it has received cease-and-desist letters from the Archdiocese saying that it cannot use the Hallahan or McMichan names. Right now, the school is fundraising through a Venmo called Girls-Education-Enterprise.

Gallagher said the organization has to raise at least $3 million. She would not say how much the effort has generated so far.

The hope is to open this fall, possibly as early as Oct. 1, but, if not, the school could welcome students in January or next September, Gallagher said.

About three-quarters of Hallahan’s current students have already enrolled in another archdiocesan high school for the next academic year, according to Gavin.

“We’re not looking just to educate the girls who are currently at Hallahan,” Gallagher said. “If students have made other commitments, we certainly respect that.”

Church leaders announced in November that Hallahan and McDevitt would close following a “sustainability study” by Faith in the Future, the foundation overseeing the 17 archdiocesan high schools.

Officials determined that declining enrollment would cause steep tuition hikes if the schools were to remain open.

The archdiocese said in January that a private Hallahan would face the same challenges.