Unexplained dismissal of assistant principal prompts rallies, petitions in Illinois diocese

  • Students rally at the Peoria, Ill., diocese's headquarters (Evan Thornton)
Peoria, Ill.

About 75 people, mostly students and some parents and alumni from Alleman Catholic High School in Rock Island, Ill., traveled roughly 100 miles Tuesday by bus to rally in support of longtime assistant principal Michelle Gau.

Students marched outside the Peoria diocese's Spalding Pastoral Center, singing "Amazing Grace," saying a rosary and holding up signs in support of Gau, whom the diocese dismissed in early June after 32 years at Alleman.

The Tuesday rally is part of an ongoing movement by students, parents and alumni at the high school seeking answers for her dismissal. Prior to the two buses leaving for Peoria, Fr. Daniel Mirabelli, director of development for the high school, bestowed a blessing on the crowd. Parents who couldn't make the trip also came by the high school to send off their students.

Students walked around the diocese building for a little over an hour, shouting, "Who do we want? Ms. Gau! Who do we need? Ms. Gau!"

Meanwhile, the diocese has had no comment on the assistant principal's dismissal.

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According to students at the protest, a diocese official came out and asked why the students were there. Evan Thornton, a junior at Alleman, said they wanted to talk to Sharon Weiss, superintendent of schools for the diocese but was told she was not in the building.

Weiss said via email Tuesday she had no comment, stating it was a personnel matter.

"Anytime someone calls the diocese, they always say [Ms. Weiss] is not in the building," Thornton said. "We were pumped. We were really loud. We had a good turnout."

Fellow Alleman junior Haley DeGreve said, "We just want them [the diocese] to listen to us."

The Tuesday rally followed a June 6 rally near the high school, which brought out approximately 500 people in Rock Island. Students and parents marched from the school grounds to nearby Lincoln Park. Many of the parents at the June 6 rally said Gau spent countless hours at the school, leading the Student Hunger Drive and other activities.

Carlos Polit, whose son attends the high school, said Gau has been instrumental in helping his three children at Alleman. Polit, along with other parents and students, has helped organize the rallies.

"Ms. Gau had compassion and discipline," Polit said. "I cannot tell how many instances where parents, students and faculty went to Ms. Gau first to talk about things and get a resolution. I hope the diocese rethinks this, changes its mind and reinstates her. She was an inspiration, a counselor, and the things she's done for that school, for the students, for the parents, cannot be measured."

Fellow parent Karen Sheraden said Gau was the backbone of the school.

"We hope to get some answers," Sheraden said at the June 6 rally. "She needs to know what's going on. It would have been nice, I feel, if we would have at least had an email from the school. We're here to show her support, show we love her, and we're not happy this happened to her."

In addition to the rallies, a petition drive has over 1,700 signatures in support of Gau.

On June 10, the Rock Island Vicariate Catholic Schools board of trustees asked the pastors' board of the Rock Island Vicariate to reconsider the diocese's decision to dismiss Gau.

The board of trustees meeting was closed to the public, but a source inside the meeting said the trustees approved a recommendation to ask the pastors' board to reconsider Gau's termination. It's unknown whether the pastors' board overruled the diocese's decision to fire Gau.

The Rock Island vicariate consists of the Catholic schools of Rock Island County in northwestern Illinois, bordering the Mississippi River. The board of trustees is the single governing authority for all four Catholic schools in the Illinois Quad Cities: Jordan Catholic School in Rock Island, Our Lady of Grace Catholic Academy in East Moline, Seton Catholic School in Moline and Alleman High School.

Board president Susan Rector said she could not comment on Gau's case.

Megan Thornton, mother of Evan, attended both the rallies June 6 and Tuesday. She said as students marched around the diocese Tuesday, "there were a lot of people inside looking out the windows and taking pictures of us."

"The parents want an answer," she said. "I've heard talk of people maybe not donating to the diocese. When you're a private school, you feel as a parent, money-wise, you have a little bit more invested. I think parents feel they deserve an answer. No one has heard a word on what will happen."

One voice that has carried weight through Gau's dismissal is that of Mirabelli, who has been at Alleman since 1966. Through the decades, his name has become synonymous with the high school.

"Without Michelle, Alleman will not be the same," Mirabelli said June 6. "She's given us 32 years of her life. Oh, without her, we're going to be lost, son. She's so involved, especially with our students.

"She's here seven days a week," he added. "She comes at seven o'clock in the morning. She's at my Mass every morning at 7:30 a.m. She helps me in the bookstore."

Mirabelli went on to say that Gau not only runs the Student Hunger Drive, but also gives help to those in need of gifts at Christmas and brings in over $70,000 a year at the school's annual silent auction.

"Who am I going to get? There's no person who will do what she does for us," Mirabelli said. "I really mean that honestly. She's such a big help to me. I'm getting old, son, and I can't do the things I used to do."

Gau has not returned calls for comment. Parents and students close to her say she has told them she cannot comment at this time.

Evan Thornton, the high school junior who has been among the hundreds of students supporting Gau, said they are not finished with their protests. Peoria Bishop Daniel Jenky may be in the Rock Island area later this month and, according to Thornton, students have tentatively planned to organize another rally on behalf of Gau.

[Stephen Elliott is a reporter for The Dispatch and The Rock Island Argus newspapers in the Illinois Quad Cities. He has been reporting since 1989 and has been in the Quad Cities since 2000, writing about politics, city government, features and personal profiles.]

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July 14-27, 2017