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A Community Center Rises From A Closed Catholic School04:25
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Kevin Carragee, of the Presentation Foundation Board, stands beside a wall of old chalkboards that have been incorporated into the new building. (Monica Brady-Myerov/WBUR)
Kevin Carragee, of the Presentation Foundation Board, stands beside a wall of old chalkboards that have been incorporated into the new building. (Monica Brady-Myerov/WBUR)

Yvette Hanley is still upset about what happened seven years ago when the Archdiocese of Boston shut down Our Lady of the Presentation School in Oak Square two days before the end of the academic year. Students and teachers were locked out.

"Oh, it was the worst news we ever got. It was a place we felt comfortable with and we felt our children were in a good environment. Very safe," Hanley said.

Hanley, who is 87 years old, sent her 13 children to the Presentation School. From her back window she could watch them play at recess. Though she works part-time, after the lockout Hanley joined rallies and fundraisers as part of a grassroots effort to keep the building under community control.

"When you live in a place — I’ve been here since '62 — you want to do something to keep the community together, and we are a family-oriented neighborhood," she said. "You want what’s best for everybody who lives in the community."

On Friday, Hanley will join Mayor Thomas Menino and others for the opening of the Presentation School Foundation Community Center. It will offer affordable educational, health and community services. The building is 80 percent leased to neighborhood nonprofits, including a daycare center and a Women, Infants and Children program.

But it was a long struggle to get to this point. The foundation had a hard time raising money during the recession and had to negotiate with the archdiocese over the purchase of the building. Leading the effort was Kevin Carragee, a member of the Presentation Foundation Board. He said negotiations dragged on until a surprise turn of events in 2006 — the archdiocese cut the price in half to $1 million.

"I still remember the meeting, I almost choked on my turkey sandwich, which they served. It was a stunning meeting," Carragee said.

Archdiocese spokesman Terry Donilon said church officials made the deal with the same group of people they locked out because they realized they'd made a mistake.

"Obviously we made some really bad decisions and mistakes early on, and we regret that and quite honestly, we learned a lot from them," Donilon said.

The foundation raised $5.4 million to restore the property to its original 1920s glory. They preserved the school doors, some light fixtures and all the religious icons on the outside of the building.

On a tour, Carragee said like most church properties put up for sale, it was falling apart.

"There was water in the building," he said. "The paint was peeling off the ceiling and the walls."

The renovation incorporates sustainable elements, including using the old chalkboards on the outside of a new section of the building. In the basement, there’s a large unfinished space that will be used for community gatherings.

"This is a key need for us," Carragee said. "Build-out costs here will be $80,000. What will it be used for? Local groups meeting for free, like the Girl Scouts and garden club. It will be used as a voting precinct for Brighton."

Allston-Brighton is a transient community with a large student population and a growing number of Asian and Hispanic families. Overall, the neighborhood has a 23 percent rate of poverty. These are the people the foundation wants the new community center to serve.

Jim Prince, Presentation Foundation board president, like his father, attended the Catholic elementary school, as did his children.

"For the long-term families like my own, and for the very new families, we want Allston and Brighton to be a place where people come and people stay and sink their roots in," Prince said.

For Hanley, her roots are already deep in Allston-Brighton. But over the past seven years since the school and the nearby church were closed, she’s watched families move away. Now she’s hopeful the new community center will turn around that trend.

This program aired on May 18, 2012.

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