Parochial Concerns

St. Louis' network of Catholic elementary schools is becoming smaller, more expensive and more worried about survival

On a cold December night, about 50 concerned parishioners and parents file into the basement of St. Pius V school at South Grand Boulevard and Utah Street. The Reverend Michael Lydon, pastor of the church, and Sister Barbara Siderewicz, the schoolís principal, sit at two tables, facing several rows of somber faces.

The news is not good.

Word is out that the school, which has 148 students, may close. Such rumors have been heard before ó warnings about dire financial projections and increasing deficits are always in the air.

Alison Zawacki
St. Pius V is an island of ethnic diversity in the parochial-school system, with Asians making up 55 percent of the student body.
Mark Gilliland
St. Pius V is an island of ethnic diversity in the parochial-school system, with Asians making up 55 percent of the student body.

And the parish hasnít been a stranger to hard times. Back in í94, the schoolís then-principal, Kathleen Murphy, was shot two blocks from the school as she was returning home from a meeting. She survived but remains a paraplegic. That same year, a storm blew the roof off the school.

The chronic condition of St. Pius V's school has numbed some to the talk that the end may be near. There's a survivor's mentality in this central city parish, a sense that the latest crisis will blow over.

But it is different this time. Final.

Lydon and Siderewicz, pastor and principal, use an overhead projector to deliver the bad news: St. Pius V School, open for 96 years, will close at the end of the school year. The recommendation is to consolidate with a nearby school, Notre Dame Elementary. Students from both schools will attend class in Notre Dame's building. Keeping St. Pius V School open seems unlikely.

"Unless anybody gets a huge inspiration from the Holy Spirit tonight and says, 'Here's something you haven't thought of' or 'I got a million bucks or a guy who wants to give it to us,'" Lydon tells the group.

Failing that, St. Pius V School will cease to exist, another casualty of the major upheaval that is hitting Catholic education in the city and its inner-ring suburbs. Another piece of St. Louis' shrinking network of parochial schools will fall away, weakening an education option city residents, Catholic and non-Catholic, have counted on for decades.

What were once taken for granted -- the strong links among the local parish, its neighborhood and its school -- are being swept aside by rising costs and open competition for students by surviving parochial schools, a scramble that ignores parish boundaries and religious preferences.

In the basement of St. Pius V School, the unwelcome news is delivered in two languages, a reflection of the shifting ethnic reality of a parish where half the students are Vietnamese. In a classroom used for art instruction at the rear of the basement, a nun tells Vietnamese parents the same news in their native language, a muffled sound that can be heard in the main room.

Up front, Lydon and Siderewicz face a quiet group of parents. No one expresses shock or anger. No one's voice is raised. The pastor and principal are upbeat, stressing that Notre Dame has a similar mix of students, with a significant number of immigrant and refugee children.

Parents ask tentative questions. Some suggest that the new arrangement will not work for them. "It's not a good fit for us," says Terri Linn, who co-chaired the school's annual picnic. Her two children usually walk to school and would have to cross Gravois Avenue, a busy street, to attend Notre Dame.

Kate Hartz thinks it's a good match because some of the students already know each other from playing on sports teams together. Hartz, a Lutheran, has a son in fifth grade at St. Pius; her daughter graduated two years ago. Hartz says she has "loved our years at St. Pius," but she is worried that some of St. Pius' kids will be shut out of the consolidated school.

"My concern is, we need to serve every child who is in school at this time," says Hartz. "If they go with fourteen of their classmates, it's much more comfortable than 'Oh, we can take five, but the rest of you can't go.'"

As the question-and-answer session continues, Peggy Stein, a mother of seven, sits in the third row and knits. For years, she has run the funnel-cake booth at the school picnic. She organizes an annual tailgate sale on the school playground. She's a den mother for Cub Scouts.

When Lydon calls on her for input, she voices a more fundamental concern than the survival of the school: Could the parish itself be closed? Three parishes in South County have just been shut down, and Stein worries that St. Pius V is facing the same fate.

"I feel strongly we need to protect the parish," she says. "I don't want the archdiocese coming in, saying, 'You guys aren't making it because of the school.' I'm mad at the archdiocese about what they're doing to those parishes in South County, and they could do that to us."

Stein's concerns reflect the cold reality of Catholic education.

For years, changing demographics and increasing personnel costs have jeopardized parochial schools in transitional neighborhoods -- both in the city and its near suburbs.

In the last two years, new charter schools in the city have siphoned students away from adjacent parochial schools. And the city's surviving parochial schools have had to compete for students from outside their parish boundaries -- whether those students are Catholic or not.

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