MONTEBELLO — The boys at Cantwell High School figured they had been called to the gymnasium for the usual honor roll assembly last Friday.
But there were no awards or words of congratulations. Instead, the principal, Brother Benjamin Favero, stood before the students and told them that after 43 years of instructing at the boys' school, the Congregation of Christian Brothers had been asked to leave by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
"Father," Favero said in the opening prayer, "we ask you for the healing of ourselves and what might be said today. Let us remember those in the past who have endorsed Cantwell High School."
In a press statement released Friday, Archbishop Roger M. Mahony announced that the archdiocese has decided not to renew the contract of the Congregation of Christian Brothers. Mahony said that the Order of Jesuits would be taking over the school.
The reaction among the boys quickly escalated from dismay to anger. "If they take away the brothers, they take away who we are," said junior Hector Melgar.
On Monday, about 220 boys staged a two-hour walkout to protest Mahony's decision, which they called "unfair." Like the brothers and lay people who taught them, the students' greatest anger stemmed from the news that Mahony had made the decision without consulting the Congregation of Christian Brothers, the faculty, parents, alumni or students.
"We just don't want to fall down and say OK, take the brothers," said senior Richard Ruelas. "The archbishop has never been here. He didn't talk to anyone here. We are proud. We are happy, and we appreciate the job the Christian Brothers have done for the school. We want them to stay or some kind of compromise to be worked out."
Ruelas said the students want Mahony to visit the school.
Mahony could not be reached for comment.
Bill Rivera, spokesman for the archdiocese, said the Jesuits, who run the prestigious Loyola High School in Los Angeles, will begin running Cantwell in September, 1991. Rivera said the archdiocese had hoped the Christian Brothers would continue running the school until then, but Favero said the Christian Brothers have decided to leave at the end of this school year in June. Rivera said it is not known who will run the school in the interim.
"The decision was not based upon performance. There wasn't anything wrong," Rivera said. "The bottom line is that our only reason for bringing in the Jesuits is to assure the future of the school, not to downgrade the brothers. We just want to make sure what they started continues."
In a statement released last Friday, Mahony said that the leadership of the Christian Brothers had informed him last year that they were beginning a two-year study of their shortage of brothers and money. By the study's end it was expected that the Christian Brothers would withdraw from one of the 11 schools they serve. No schools were named.
Rivera said Mahony decided to drop the Christian Brothers' contract because there were no assurances that Cantwell would not be affected. Rivera also pointed out that the Jesuits, a renowned teaching order, had expressed interest in teaching at a school in the East Los Angeles area.
"We had no way of knowing whether Cantwell would be the school that the brothers would choose to withdraw from," Rivera said. "We had to make sure the school wasn't hurt and that's why we immediately moved to bring in the Jesuits. If we had known the brothers were going to stay at Cantwell, the action might not have been taken."
Rivera said that Mahony had spoken to the Christian Brothers' leadership about his decision, but said he did not know whether Mahony simply informed the leadership a decision had been made or asked them for input.
Favero said Mahony made the decision without first discussing it with the Congregation of Christian Brothers. Faculty, students, parents and alumni said this week that they believed Mahony has wanted Jesuits to run Cantwell for a long time and news of the Christian Brothers' study provided the excuse he needed.
Rivera said there was no indication that Mahony has been planning all along to replace the brothers.
"He had been talking to the Jesuits for some time about bringing them into another archdiocesan school and they had expressed an interest in a school in the Hispanic community, but there was no reason to believe we were trying to get the brothers out," he said.
Cantwell, like most of the 27 schools owned by the archdiocese, has been steadily losing enrollment in the last five years. The archdiocese is now considering an aggressive recruiting drive to increase enrollment, or possibly the consolidation of the school with either another boys school or a girls school.
Meanwhile, alumni, students and parents are seeking a way to change the decision.
Parent Michele Troncoza, who has a freshman at Cantwell, said she and other parents are beginning a letter-writing campaign and are circulating petitions.
"It's wrong the way they (the archdiocese) handled this," she said. "They screwed up royally and they can't do that to people. These parents pay a lot of money to send their children to Cantwell to be taught by the Christian Brothers, and the archdiocese is pulling the rug out from under them."
Brother Anthony O'Grady, who has been a math teacher at the school for seven years, said there will always be work for his order in other parts of the world, but added that he is saddened by Mahony's decision.
"It's kind of like leaving home when you know you will never be back," he said. "It's painful. I have been looking around and I cannot find a reason for this."