Four Nuns Sue School Officials Over Firing

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Four nuns who were fired from their teaching duties at the Sacred Heart School in Hampton, N.H., are suing the diocesan bishop and his superintendent of schools to discover why.

The four--Sisters Honora Reardon, Mary Rita Furlong, Justine Colliton, and Catherine Colliton, all members of the Sisters of Mercy--were dismissed on Jan. 28 after an anonymous memorandum, originating somewhere in the diocese's hierarchy, accused them of being "cliquish" and uncooperative with local school trustees and parish officials.

Bishop Odore J. Gendron and Brother Roger Lemoyne, school superintendent for the Diocese of Manchester, who have declined to give their reasons for firing the nuns, are being sued in Rockingham County Superior Court.

Lawyers for the diocese have asked that the case be dismissed, citing the constitutional separation of church and state. A hearing on that motion has been scheduled for April 1.

But John McEachern, an attorney representing the nuns, says that because the issues of the case concern contract law, it is therefore a matter for the civil courts.

According to Mr. McEachern, the nuns were denied due process under law and under the contract they signed with the parochial school board.

"We have raised a constitutional argument," said Mr. McEachern. "This case is more than likely going to end up in the New Hampshire Supreme Court. It could go further."

The Parish of Our Lady of Miraculous Meadow, in which the school is located, is polarized over the controversy. Three lay teachers have threatened to leave the school if the nuns are not rehired. Bishop Gendron, however, said his decision is final and suggested the protesters resign.

Between 250 and 300 parishoners have opened an escrow account to hold funds that would ordinarily be going into the collection box each week at the church. The money will be turned over to the parish if the nuns are rehired and refunded to parishioners if not. In addition, a separate fund has been established to cover the nuns' legal expenses.

Supporters of the four women suggest that the root of the controversy is a conflict between the church hierarchy and the Sisters of Mercy order. Some members of the order were among protesters arrested during demonstrations at the state's Seabrook nuclear power plant, an act frowned upon by the diocese.

Each nun has been teaching for roughly 25 years, according to their attorney, and three of them hold master's degrees. Sister Honora Reardon was the school principal.

"The bishop said that he had no questions pertaining to their character, teaching abilities, or religious commitment," said Mr. McEachern.

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