By Jill Harmacinski
---- — LAWRENCE — Fellow teachers Sean Houlihan and Natalie Ferland have known each other for years. They started dating in March, and the relationship quickly became serious. In October, when Ferland found out she was pregnant, they were surprised but elated about having a child together. They got engaged and started planning a wedding.
But on Nov. 25 — the Monday before Thanksgiving — Houlihan, 34, and Ferland, 26, were both “terminated” from Lawrence Catholic Academy, a 500-student elementary and middle school at 110 Parker St., after revealing their relationship and her pregnancy.
Houlihan said he repeatedly asked if they could resign from their teaching jobs, but they were fired instead.
School principal Jorge Hernandez issued them termination letters, saying they were fired for violating their contracts.
The couple is now speaking out against the “unprofessional and un-Christian-like” treatment they say they received from school administration. They do not want their jobs back at Lawrence Catholic Academy. However, they want the terminations removed from their professional records so they can obtain other jobs in education.
“We don’t want a lawsuit. But we want them to state we are good educators,” Houlihan said.
The couple also wants the public record set straight on why they left the school abruptly, as rumors swirl in the community.
Lawrence Catholic Academy parents and students were only told they left “for personnel reasons,” Ferland said. This hits the couple hard, they said, as they loved the family-like atmosphere of the school and enjoyed their camaraderie of their students and co-workers.
“Some of the teachers know what happened and felt awful,” Ferland said.
Houlihan and Ferland recently received 100 hand-made cards from students, in a package sent from a fellow teacher. Among the well-wishing and drawings, students repeatedly ask “Why did you leave?” in the cards. A text message Houlihan recently received from a parent read, “My daughter is devastated.”
“We were role models and effective educators. We cooperated with our colleagues and were committed to social justice in Lawrence,” said Houlihan, in an interview last week. Above all, he stressed, he and Ferland were committed to Catholic education in Lawrence, a predominantly low-income city of about 80,000.
“It’s certainly not a Catholic value to throw two people out on the street at the holidays,” said Houlihan. “I am not perfect, but what they did to us was wrong.”
Both teachers, who have master’s degrees, were issued their final paychecks when they were fired. Houlihan, a 7th- and 8th-grade social studies teacher, made $40,000 annually. Ferland, who taught second grade, earned $35,000 per year. On Nov. 30, five days after they were fired, their health and dental insurance was cut off.
Ferland, who said she is due in June, has an appointment with her obstetrician Tuesday. She said she has no way to pay for prenatal care without health coverage.
In their termination letters, Hernandez wrote they were fired “for good cause in accordance with the terms of the Lay Teacher Agreement you signed for this academic year.”
“Based upon your disclosures to me during our meeting of Nov. 20, 2013, it was determined you were violation of the terms of your contract,” Hernandez added, in separate letters to Houlihan and Ferland.
Houlihan said he spoke with the Rev. Paul O’Brien about his love for Ferland, her pregnancy and their desire to keep their jobs. But after “the four-minute conversation,” O’Brien told him, “I don’t see you working here,” Houlihan said. But O’Brien said the decision would ultimately fall to Hernandez, who later told the couple their future at the school was dim, they said.
Both Hernandez and O’Brien declined comment for this article, directing questions instead to a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Boston, who issued the following statement:
“Lawrence Catholic Academy is committed to providing a Catholic faith-based education as part of an exceptional overall experience. Our teachers sign an agreement to adhere to the teachings and principles of the Catholic Church, among many 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,” according to the statement issued by Terrence Donilon, Archdiocese of Boston spokesman.
“This is important so as to be consistent in following the school’s responsibility to live by the core principles of a Catholic education,” the statement concluded.
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.”
A copy of the lay teacher agreement signed by both Houlihan and Ferland indicates Lawrence Catholic Academy teachers must act professionally and in a “diligent, energetic, competent and ethical manner.”
And whether they hire Catholic teachers or not, Lawrence Catholic Academy “retains the right to operate within the philosophy of Catholic education and to hire teachers who demonstrate an ability to develop and maintain a Catholic School Faith Community, to improve academic achievement and to foster Catholic Faith formation,” according to a copy of the agreement provided by Houlihan.
Houlihan and Ferland are both Catholics, which has deepened their hurt over their treatment, they said.
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 and earned his master’s degree at Seton Hall University in Pennsylvania. He has nine years teaching experience, and this was his fourth year teaching 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.”
The couple is now receiving a small amount of unemployment assistance. But it’s not enough to cover their rent, car payments, student loans and health care. Now uninsured, Houlihan said a refill for a prescription drug he takes cost him $200. Ferland said she applied for Mass Health insurance to cover her pregnancy care.
They are also both grateful for help they are receiving from their families. However, without that support, “We’d be eating in Father Paul’s soup kitchen,” said Houlihan, referring to Cor Unum, the free meal center for St. Patrick’s Church.
Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter @EagleTribJill.