Are Catholic parochial schools a thing of the past? For the most part, the image of teaching sisters regularly presiding over full classrooms of boys and girls in neat uniforms is a dim memory, replaced by the stark reality of having to pay salaries and benefits for lay teachers.
But should a struggling parish just cut loose a school that is not much more than a financial albatross?
By no means, says Father Peter M.J. Stravinskas, and he is bringing a panel of experts together next weekend to prove his point.
Father Stravinskas, executive director of the Catholic Education Foundation, worries about the tendency of parishes to be dismissive of schools at best and to regard them as a drain at worst.
“Two years ago I taught a graduate school course at Fordham [University] for administrators,” he said. He had four high school and 13 grammar school administrators. “On the first day of class I asked ‘What’s the involvement of priests at your school?’ Not a single high school had a single priest on staff. At the parish level it was worse. Not one had a priest that came near the school whatsoever.”
But a priest’s involvement is vital, he and others will argue during a three-day conference, “The Role of the Priest in Today’s Catholic School,” July 19-21 at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia.
“A bishop told me about a parish in his diocese that he said should have been shuttered years ago,” Father Stravinskas said. “However, he wanted to give it another shot. He called a young priest in to talk about the assignment. The guy said ‘You’ve got to be kidding. You want to set me up for failure?’ The bishop said, ‘I’m not forcing you to do it.’ But the young priest decided to try it. Every morning he led the children in morning prayer. He took over teaching religion in 7th and 8th grades. He was in the cafeteria with kids at lunch time. At the end of the school day he made the sign of the cross over the students as they left.
“The school enrollment quickly went from 50 to 100 then 150 and now largest school in the city,” the priest reported.
Father Stravinskas concluded: “The principal mistake parishes make is saying, ‘If we get rid of the school the parish will thrive.’ That never happens. If the school goes the parish is finished.”
Anthony Pienta, one of the speakers at next weekend’s conference, concurred. “One of the last urban Catholic schools in Grand Rapids, Mich., is Sacred Heart Academy,” said Pienta, Director of K-12 Education Programs at the Philanthropy Roundtable. “The parish was aging quite a bit. A number of young families moved in, but none of them went to the school. Nobody would have faulted them if they had closed the school.”
But some in the parish said, “Why don’t we try something new?”
“So they reconstituted it as a classical academy,” Pienta said. “Now they’re gong to be building a high school. It’s an amazing success story. And now they’re starting to offer a program for homeschooling families.”
He said the parish is flourishing because of the revival of its school.
In a welcome letter for the conference, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, says, “The essential role and presence of the priest in Catholic education is well documented.”
[Editor’s Note: Take the Poll – Should priests be present to improve Catholic school enrollment?]