In urban centers, more and more.

Catholic schools close their doors.

By: Ana Mulrine

I t has been, as Father Nick Ciccone sees it, St. Margaret’s very own perfect storm. First, the bad economy hit, and working-class families in his Dorchester, Mass., parish found themselves hardly able to pay their tuition. New teachers were reluctant to take jobs in Roman Catholic schools with salaries that barely cover the cost of Boston-area housing. To top it all off, parishioners protesting the church’s on-going sexual abuse scandal began withholding money from the Boston archdiocese, which in the past provided key financial support for the city’s Catholic schools. The parish learned that it would lose a $420,000 annual subsidy from the archdiocese that has been used to underwrite scholarships to local students for the past 20 years.

In the end, the only choice St. Margaret’s could make was a painful one: to close 85-year-old Monsignor Ryan Memorial, one of only two all-girls Catholic high schools in Boston. It’s not alone. A recent report by the National Catholic Educa-

tional Association found that 140 Catholic schools consolidated or closed last year, the majority in cities. Over the past decade, 394 Catholic schools, most built to serve Irish, Italian, and Polish immigrant communities, have closed. While urban parishes have long struggled to make ends meet, the old economic woes have been compounded by the priest sex-abuse scandal coverup and “obscurity around diocesan finances,” says Joseph O’Keefe, a professor who studies Catholic education at Boston College. Nearly one third of American Catholics withheld weekly church offerings in the wake of the scandals, according to a Gallup Poll last year. “The perception is that the money going to the church collection ultimately will be used to pay off claims and lawsuits,” says Ciccone. The unanticipated result, according to a statement issued by a disconsolate group of Monsignor Ryan faculty and alums, is nothing less than “the unraveling of the Catholic education system.”

The financial problems are not ubiquitous: Catholic schools in wealthier suburban parishes are thriving. Some 40 per-cent of Catholic schools in these areas have waiting lists for admission. Yet the economics of urban Catholic schools remain far trickier. Their generally poorer students have required heavy subsidies from cash-strapped dioceses to keep tuition low. (In the year before it closed, Monsignor Ryan’s tuition was $5,250, but 90 percent of students received financial aid.)

The current situation is particularly troubling given the role that Catholic schools have played in urban communities over the past few decades. The church began opening these schools for immigrants in the mid-1800s, in response to anti-Catholic sentiment among nativist groups founded to eradicate “foreign influence, popery, Jesuitism and Catholicism.” Between 1900 and 1920, the number of Catholic elementary schools in the country has doubled to more than 6,500. Catholic school enrollment reached an all-time high of 5.3 million students in 1960, the same year John F. Kennedy became the first Catholic to be elected president.

While urban public schools were crumbling in the wake of white flight to the suburbs in the late 1960s and 1970s, parish schools, which began serving many non-Catholic black students, remained strong. In their landmark 1987 study, sociologists James S. Coleman and Thomas Hoffer found that Catholic school students did better than public-school peers in reading, math, and verbal skills, and minority students were far less likely to drop out.

St. Margaret’s was founded in 1893, at the height of Irish immigration to Boston. In 1965, the parish schools mirrored the demographics of Catholic schools across the country, in which 95 percent of teachers and staff belonged to Catholic orders. “There was the sister with a piece of chalk in front of a class of 60 kids. She didn’t earn a salary,” says O’Keefe.

Today, the parish high school’s student population comprises 32 different ethnic groups, and 94 percent of graduates go on to college. What’s more, 60 percent of St.Margaret’s staffers are now laypeople. Ciccone says that the health insurance tab for its school employees is up 18 percent this year alone and is projected to rise an additional 22 percent next year . Meanwhile, the physical plant is aging rapidly. “We were always wondering, ‘When will the next boiler blow up?’ “ says Ciccone. He hopes that by selling the property, the parish will at least raise enough funds to support its grammar school.

Elsewhere, as the church’s scandals remain in the news—the Diocese of San Bernardino, Calif., announced this month that it is suing the Archdiocese of Boston for concealing a priest’s history of sexual abuse (marking the first time one American diocese has sued another)—parishioners aren’t likely to boost their giving anytime soon. The bishop of Jefferson City, Mo., last year wrote to priests in his diocese, according to the St. Louis Post Dispatch: We cannot ignore the impact that recent headlines will have on future enrollment,” he cautioned, adding that the scandal compounded financial struggles and “only hurried the inevitable.”

Helping hands. Some schools have found unique solutions. In Minneapolis, demand for parish schools remains strong as traditionally Catholic Latino families move to the area. Wealthier parishes have stepped in to form partnerships and help their poorer urban counterparts; one suburban school gives $150,000, another $360,000 per year. Businesses are also pitching in. In Los Angeles, Catholic schools are staffing part-time student jobs at corporations that, in turn, donate the cost of their tuition. For example, the company might have a full-time, entry-level clerical job shared by four students. Their combined salary, about $25,000, then goes to cover tuition costs. Schools in Austin, Tucson, Chicago, Cleveland, and Denver are considering similar programs.

Back in Boston, Monsignor Ryan is planning its last graduation ceremony—for the senior class of 44 students—and has just moved the statue of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton that sat in the center of campus, her arms around two young children crad-ling schoolbooks, to the grammar school. In years past, says Principal Mary Ferr-ucci, alums have returned to the parish chapel “to get married, to baptize their children.” Now, she wants to make sure that at least the primary school will con-tinue to provide a source of community for the neighborhood. “If the church doesn’t commit to the schools,” she says, “then the church runs the risk of losing its future.”



May 5, 2003. (Pgs. 34-5)

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