By Jill Harmacinski
---- — LAWRENCE — Former Lawrence Catholic Academy teachers Sean Houlihan and Natalie Ferland are expecting a child in June. They can also expect to continue receiving their paychecks and health care insurance for the rest of the school year.
It is an agreement the couple reached with the private Catholic elementary school one week after they went public about being fired because of their out-of-wedlock pregnancy. They are engaged to be married in 2015.
Their professional work records will also indicate they resigned on Nov. 25 rather than having been terminated.
Houlihan, 34, and Ferland, 26, had revealed their relationship to school officials. In separate letters, school principal Jorge Hernandez said he was firing them for violating their contracts with the school.
After learning about the couple’s plight in last Sunday’s Eagle-Tribune, attorney Anthony DiFruscia of Lawrence offered to help them for free. Terminating an employee for “good cause” does not mean it was “legal cause,” DiFruscia said.
The agreement stipulates both Houlihan, who made $40,000 annually, and Ferland, who earned $35,000, will stay on the LCA payroll until Aug. 31, 2014. Their health care insurance will be paid for until then as well. Ferland is due in June.
Their departures from the school will also be officially characterized as “resignations,” which the couple said will help them obtain new jobs in education. Both of them have master’s degrees.
“I think it’s a fair resolution for both sides. And it’s the Christian thing to do,” DiFruscia said.
After rumors swirled over their terminations, the couple talked about what they described as “unprofessional and un-Christian like” treatment from the Lawrence Catholic Academy administration.
Houlihan, who taught seventh and eighth grade, thanked DiFruscia for “his ability to utilize the law as a tool to fix an act of injustice.”
However, Houlihan stressed, “There are no winners here. Lawrence Catholic Academy has lost two strong educators that were passionate about their profession, had an unconditional love for their students and loved the camaraderie of their colleagues.”
Houlihan and Ferland have known each other for years, but started dating in March. In October, Ferland learned she was pregnant. The couple said they were surprised but elated to be having a child together. They got engaged and planned a 2015 wedding. But when they informed Hernandez and the Rev. Paul O’Brien, pastor of St. Patrick’s Church, about the relationship and pregnancy, they were told their professional futures were grim at the school.
Hernandez fired them on Nov. 25 and said their health care benefits would stop five days later.
To date, Hernandez and O’Brien have declined to speak publicly about the terminations. All questions were referred to Terrence Donilon, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Boston. He said he could not comment specifically on personnel matters.
Donilon did release a statement last week saying Lawrence Catholic Academy teachers sign an agreement saying they will “adhere to the teachings and principles of the Catholic Church, among other criteria essential for employment.”
“When that contract is violated it is the school’s responsibility to make a determination as to whether a member of the staff can remain based on the facts of the matter. This is important so as to be consistent in following the school’s responsibility to live by the core principles of a Catholic education,” according to the statement.
Lawrence Catholic Academy was formed in 2010 when St. Patrick’s and Our Lady of Good Counsel schools merged.
On its Web page, the school describes itself as “a community of believers who strive to permeate the school with the love and compassion of Jesus Christ. We, as a faith community, have accepted the mandate of Jesus Christ to ‘love one another as I have loved you.’ In conjunction with the family and the Catholic Church community, we foster the spiritual, intellectual, physical, social and emotional development of the whole child.”
Both Houlihan and Ferland are Catholic.
Raised in Lawrence, Ferland attended Central Catholic High School, Salem State University and then earned her master’s degree at the University of New England. She became a teacher, she said, because she loves working with children and she likes teaching writing. She was in her third year of teaching at Lawrence Catholic Academy.
Houlihan grew up in Rhode Island. He attended Tilton Preparatory School in Tilton, N.H., and Salve Regina University in Rhode Island and earned his master’s degree at Seton Hall University in Pennsylvania. He has nine years teaching experience, and this was his fourth year at Lawrence Catholic Academy.
Pointing to his childhood, Houlihan described himself as “a Boys and Girls Club” kid. He said he felt his work at the Lawrence Catholic Academy “was a great way for me to give back. I really enjoyed it.”
After going public with their story, the couple said they received a groundswell of support from family, friends and strangers. “We would like to thank the community of Lawrence and the Merrimack Valley for supporting us during this hardship,” Houlihan said.
Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter @EagleTribJill.