MONTVILLE — Mohegan tribal leaders joined officials from the Diocese of Norwich on Wednesday to acknowledge the ownership of Saint Bernard School changing hands.
The sale of the school to the Mohegan Tribe was part of a January settlement that awarded $29 million to sexual abuse victims at Mount Saint John in Deep River, a residential school for boys that shut down in 2013. In order to pay the settlement, the diocese agreed to sell the 113-acre property that is home to the Saint Bernard School, as well as Xavier High School in Middletown. The award has since been increased to $32 million in an amended plan.
A group of 51 parishes in the diocese must also pay a total of $2.7 million, though it’s unclear how much each parish will be required to contribute.
The Mohegan Tribe purchased the Saint Bernard property at auction in June for $6.55 million, with an agreement that the 6-12 school would continue to operate for at least 20 years.
James Gessner Jr., chair of the Mohegan Tribe, told CT Examiner there were no concrete plans for the land after 20 years had passed. The contract includes a clause stipulating that discussions about the future of the land would begin at year 18, but Gessner said the important thing was that the land was back in the tribe’s possession.
“I think once we get close to the 20 years, if the school wants to continue, then they can continue to operate on this land,” Gessner said. “The biggest thing for us was that we wanted this land back. From the 1800s to when the land was basically taken from us, or however you want to put that. We just wanted to make sure that we secured that land for future generations, for my granddaughter, for my daughter’s granddaughter.”
At the news conference, Head of School Don Macrino read a land acknowledgement, recognizing that all of Connecticut belonged to Native Americans, and that the land on which the school is housed once belonged to the Mohegans.
“This is a place of historic and cultural significance, and it’s finally been returned to its rightful stewards after centuries,” Macrino said.
Bishop Michael Cote, of the Diocese of Norwich, said he was pleased the Mohegan Tribe ultimately purchased the Saint Bernard property.
“I am grateful for the way that this has all turned out. I truly am. I think the Great Spirit has overseen this,” Cote said. “There were others vying for this property, but a great injustice that was created against Mohegan tribal people has now been reversed. I truly think this is the work of the Spirit.”
He also expressed gratitude that the tribe was allowing the school to continue, giving them “a future.”
“You have been a good neighbor to us. I hope we have been and can continue to be a good neighbor to you,” Cote said.
At the news conference, Gessner underscored the importance of the land to the Mohegan people and also thanked the school for its willingness to work together.
“This land is not just physical space — it’s a symbol of our ancestors’ lives, their legacy and our enduring resilience as a people. And that has become a symbol of the cooperation and partnership we share as a nation,” he said. “The hard work that brought us to today and the results of that hard work are a testament to the bridges that we can build when we approach one another with respect and understanding.”
Gessner and Macrino told CT Examiner there would be no changes to how the school operates. And although there haven’t been formal conversations yet, Macrino said the school might consider allowing more tribal students to attend the school and offering scholarships.
“That’s sort of in the back of my mind, and I think perhaps theirs as well,” he said.
Cote told CT Examiner there was no plan yet for the sale of Xavier High School in Middletown, but said it would remain a school.
“It’s one of my flagships,” Cote said. “And it’s very successful, and the parents are fully committed to sending their children there. And their children go on to be extremely successful and they do well in life.”
Cote would not offer more detail about the current status of the bankruptcy agreement, saying his lawyers advised him not to speak on the matter.
Early last month, Judge James Tancredi expressed concern that the U.S. Supreme Court case weighing in on the lawsuit against Purdue Pharmaceuticals may impact the outcome of the bankruptcy case, since both rely on “non-consensual third-party releases” — in the case of the diocese, to protect individual parishes from being sued for bankruptcy. Tancredi said the case may have to be “paused” in the interim.
The court will be holding a hearing on Oct. 25 to consider the sale of properties at 17 and 25 Otis St. in Norwich, which house diocesan offices.
An additional status hearing is scheduled for Oct. 16.