A private Catholic elementary school beset by controversy after firing a popular faculty member for being in a same-sex marriage is calling in help to deal with outraged parents.
Nell Stetser, principal of Waldron Mercy Academy in Merion, wrote to parents and faculty Wednesday, acknowledging that the school's community "has been shaken" by the firing of Margie Winters, the school's director of religious education since 2007.
"I understand that there are feelings of frustration, disappointment, betrayal, anger, and sorrow," wrote Stetser, who fired Winters on June 22 after she refused to resign. "I, too, feel deep pain in this situation."
Stetser asked parents of the school's 532 students to "join me in the process of healing" by attending a meeting with a "skilled facilitator to lead us in a series of productive conversations about the complex challenges we face today."
Stetser's letter came as some Waldron Mercy parents say they are either withholding tuition - which was due Wednesday - or moving their children to other schools.
Katie Culver of Haverford said she had not yet paid tuition for her three children. She wrote to Stetser asking her to meet with parents.
"I was asking for transparency in this decision. I said, 'You're not giving me a reassurance in my faith in you next year.' With faith goes money," Culver said.
Dave Peterson of Philadelphia said he also withheld tuition this week for his 12-year-old daughter.
Peterson said he e-mailed the school saying he "cannot in good conscience give our tuition payment until we get a full and open accounting for the whole school community from Nell and the board."
Shivanee Raj said she had not paid tuition yet for her two children.
"A lot of parents are just really confused at the moment," Raj said.
Tuition for grades 1 through 8 is $13,500 for the year. The school also includes prekindergarten and Montessori classes.
Waldron Mercy business manager Nancy Cahill acknowledged that some parents had not paid their tuition, but said she did not know how many.
Stetser's letter set no date for the meeting with parents, but said it would happen before the first day of school.
In a July 3 e-mail to parents that sparked the controversy, Stetser wrote that she fired Winters after consulting with the school's board of trustees and the Sisters of Mercy, the religious order that sponsors the K-8 school.
"In the Mercy spirit, many of us accept life choices that contradict current church teachings, but to continue as a Catholic school, Waldron Mercy must comply with those teachings," she wrote.
In the same e-mail, Stetser also credited Winters with "amazing contributions" to the school.
Winters has said she told the school about her wife - the couple married in Boston - after being hired in 2007.
That marriage did not become a problem, Winters said, until this year, when one parent complained to the school and another to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
A spokesman for Archbishop Charles J. Chaput has said repeatedly over the last week that the archdiocese played no role in the firing.
Chaput on Monday issued a statement that the firing showed "character and common sense at a moment when both seem to be uncommon," a comment that further enraged some parents.
"His statement was beyond insulting. It was so ugly and hateful, and I don't want any part of that," said Culver, adding that she might send her children to another school.
A GoFundMe.com page has raised more than $14,000 for Winters in eight days. More than 10,000 Facebook users have liked a "Stand With Margie" page.
Though he did not mention Winters' name, Chaput on Monday thanked the Sisters of Mercy, Stetser, and the school's board for "taking the steps" to relieve her of her job.
Sister Patricia Vetrano, president of the Sisters of Mercy Mid-Atlantic Community, said last week that her order had consulted with the archdiocese about Winters' employment.
Vetrano sent a letter to Waldron Mercy parents Monday saying her order supported Stetser's action "as a final decision which will not be reversed or modified."
About 200 parents gathered last week to discuss how to respond. Winters and her wife, Andrea Vettori, attended that private meeting and spoke.
Vettori wrote to Pope Francis last week asking to meet with him when he visits Philadelphia on Sept. 26 and 27 after the World Meeting of Families.
Asked Wednesday for comment on Stetser's letter to parents and faculty, Winters and Vettori wrote in an e-mail:
"We so appreciated Nell reaching out to the parents. Relationship is at the heart of Mercy, and the hard work of reconciliation will only make this Waldron community more awesome than they already are."
Correction: This story was revised to correct a quote attributed to parent Katie Culver.
To read principal Nell Stetser's letter to parents, go to www.philly.com/letterEndText