Out to Pastor 

Catholic school alumni angered after diocese fires a principal and two teachers.

It was only five days before the end of the semester when Julia Willhite was fired from her position as principal of Frayser's Our Lady of Sorrows Elementary School in December. And, according to Willhite, she still hasn't been given a good reason why she was let go.

"There was never any kind of documentation that I wasn't doing a good job. As a matter of fact, I have a letter from the superintendent of schools telling me what a wonderful job I was doing," Willhite says.

Willhite was hired as principal in July 2009 and fired five months later. She was told one morning she was being let go, but she wasn't told a reason why. She suspects her firing may have something to do with some financial discrepancies she discovered in the school administration.

But why she was fired isn't as important to Willhite as how.

"It was mid-week, mid-day. I wasn't allowed to speak to anybody," Willhite says. "The next day when I came to get my personal stuff, the priest called the police on me for trespassing."

Calls to the superintendent with the Catholic Diocese of Memphis were not returned.

Similarly, two tenured teachers at St. Louis Elementary School, another of the local diocese's schools, were let go in early January.

Sherry Riggins and Mary Talarico, who taught math and science, respectively, to seventh and eighth graders, were let go without much explanation. Riggins had been with St. Louis for 32 years, and Talarico had been teaching there for 24 years.

After their firing, rumors began surfacing on Facebook that the two were let go because their teaching styles were too strict. A Facebook page was formed in support of the teachers, with alumni and parents posting comments expressing their anger over the firings.

"We've heard that a handful of parents complained that certain teachers were strict disciplinarians," says Brent Riggins, the son of Sherry Riggins. "But these teachers had outstanding records. They've touched lives and made people turn their lives around."

Brent says his mother won't even talk to him about the details of her firing, and Talarico could not be located for comment.

Tracy Wright, a former St. Louis student, attended the school in 1985 and had Riggins for math and history.

"I have absolutely no complaints with her. She was strict, and she expected a lot from her students. But she was one of the most caring teachers I've ever had," Wright says.

Mike Lenahan, a St. Louis alumnus from the early 1990s, is angry about the way the diocese handled the firing of Riggins, Talarico, and Willhite.

"They never really gave them any opportunity to learn what the issue was," Lenahan says. "If there's an issue, let's sit down and have a meeting. Let's figure out a plan of action. Give them a shot before you cut them loose after years of service."

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