The Lights Are Growing Dim

I’m writing this column smack in the middle of Catholic Schools Week, a bittersweet occasion this year. In parishes like my own, Catholic Schools Week is a cause for celebration and even a little self-congratulation. In other places, however, the week must seem terribly sad indeed. Another round of school closings, especially in urban areas, is upon us, and while these measures may be necessary, they are heartbreaking and even tragic. Catholic schools have long been a beacon of hope in so many poor neighborhoods, but in Philadelphia, Chicago, New York and other cities, the lights are growing dim. Salvation, in the form of vouchers, seems as unlikely as ever, even with a president who says all the right things about innovation in education.

During a special Sunday Mass that kicked off Catholic Schools Week in my parish, all the qualities that we Catholic school advocates champion were on display. The school’s principal and teachers were part of the procession to the altar, joining not only the pastor, the deacon and the choir, but the big-shot president of the school’s P.T.A., who happens to be my wife. (An aside: my wife’s voluntary labors on behalf of Caritas, as the P.T.A. is called, has strengthened the bonds between us. Between her work and my night job as an occasional author, we both find ourselves at the mercy of critics.)


As the Mass progressed, students performed the readings, acted as ushers, served on the altar and brought up the gifts. (That latter task was assigned to my daughter.) Amazingly, two young girls sang the responsorial psalm, a feat of bravery and poise that did the school, their parents and their teachers proud. They scampered up the high-note hills and picked their way carefully down treacherous low-note canyons with remarkable ease. The pastor delivered an artfully inclusive homily that made everybody in the churchparents, non-parents and students, whether in the parish school or in public schoolfeel a part of the school-parish community. All in all, it was a moving and celebratory occasion.

Afterward, however, I couldn’t help thinking about the hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of parents who know, or worry, that their Catholic school won’t be around for Catholic Schools Week in 2003. The students and parents of Most Blessed Sacrament school and Good Shepherd school in southwest Philadelphia have already gotten the bad news: these schools will close their doors forever in June. According to an Associated Press story about the closings, Most Blessed Sacrament had 3,800 students in the early 1960’s; now enrollment is 170. Good Shepherd has but 203 students. It has become impossible to keep these parish schools open and viable, said Philadelphia’s archbishop, Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua.

Meanwhile, in Chicago the archdiocese has announced that 14 elementary schools will close in June. And in New York, teachers, parents and students in many schools are awaiting a similar announcement. Cardinal Edward Egan closed three schools last year, and would have closed three more but for the appearance of benefactors who came to the schools’ perhaps temporary rescue. Many parents in New York fear that this year’s list of closings will be longer. They may be right; they may be wrong. What’s interesting is that they accept as inevitable that more schools will be closed in the next few weeks.

Nationwide, 61 Catholic schools either closed or were consolidated last year, according to the National Catholic Educational Association. Most of the closings took place in old urban neighborhoods that were once home to Catholic working families, immigrants and their children, who sought the great American dream not for themselves, but for the next generation. The dream came true, and the next generation left the old neighborhood for the suburbs. The parish school tried to adapt to new demographics but failed. As familiar as the story has become, it remains poignant, because each school represents a history and a neighborhood’s hopes for the future.

Not all the news is grim, by the way. Fifty-four new Catholic schools opened last year, and enrollment in Catholic schools is up by 64,000 over the last decade, according to the N.C.E.A. Total enrollment is 2.6 million. Still, those figures don’t take away the pain we all feel, or should feel, every time we hear about another school closing.

For the last 15 or 20 years, many Catholic educators and administrators have pointed with justifiable pride to the number of non-Catholics who are getting the benefit of Catholic education, particularly in urban areas. In New York, Catholic schools have received wonderful publicity for their work with non-Catholics, winning the grudging admiration of some people who, it seems fair to say, might not be thought of as fans of parochial education.

With administrators facing difficult decisions, it may be time to question whether dioceses can afford to educate non-Catholics if it means cutting services for Catholic children. Granted, it’s not always an either-or choice. But there will be times when administrators will have to choose between a successful school with a predominantly non-Catholic population and a struggling school with a mostly Catholic enrollment. Which is the more appropriate choice? Where should scarce resources be deployed? For years, many dioceses have tried to manage both. Those days are overor so it seems.

I wouldn’t want to make such decisions. But I’ll continue to pray for those who must.

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