Parochial Concerns

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

Concern about the survival of these parochial schools has escalated into worry about parish survival, particularly for parishes inside the city limits, where only 12 percent of the region's Catholics now live.

Such worries are not unfounded. In November, the St. Louis Archdiocese closed three near-suburban parishes and their schools in South County on or near Union Road, a departure for a religious institution that has closed schools but left their churches untouched. The parishes of St. Timothy, Most Precious Blood and Mary Queen of the Universe will be replaced by one church, one school.

And even though the archdiocese has been turning out the lights at parochial schools for years, there's a sense that the pace is quickening -- at least six schools will be closed by the end of this year; eight were closed last year. In 1965, there were 202 parochial elementary schools. This year, it's down to 137 schools. Next year, the number will drop again.

The Reverend Michael Lydon and Sister Barbara Siderewicz of St. Pius V
Mark Gilliland
The Reverend Michael Lydon and Sister Barbara Siderewicz of St. Pius V
Sisters Joyelle Proot (left) and Janet McCann with students at Hyde Park's Most Holy Trinity
Mark Gilliland
Sisters Joyelle Proot (left) and Janet McCann with students at Hyde Park's Most Holy Trinity

As the lights go out at schools in the city and inner-ring suburbs, other lights burn brightly west of I-270. In the more affluent neighborhoods of outer suburbia, parishes are raising money to build new school additions to handle spiking enrollments, a sign that most of the region's Catholics now live outside the city limits.

Unlike most public school districts, which face one problem or the other, the archdiocese faces boom and bust in the same school system.

The St. Louis Archdiocese runs the largest and oldest school system in the state, with 56,000 students and 30 high schools. The living alumni of the local parochial-school system are estimated to number more than 300,000. Many of the schools they attended have closed; others are barely able to keep their doors open.

St. Louis, which is the twentieth-largest metropolitan area in the nation, has the seventh largest Catholic-school system. About half of the area's Catholic school-age children attend a parochial or private Catholic school -- one of the highest percentages in the country, says the National Catholic Education Association.

For decades, the parochial-school system provided a reasonably priced educational option for families worried about the safety or quality of public schools. There's always been an unsavory side to this option: Whites have seen parochial schools as refuges from desegregation and a public-school system that is predominantly African-American.

But no matter the motivation of the parent, options are dwindling because parochial schools are either closing outright or surviving by increasing tuition, making it tough for working-class families to foot the bill.

St. Pius V, in the heart of the city, has weathered many of the problems linked to a struggling neighborhood. About 70 percent of its students receive tuition assistance, up from 28 percent seven years ago. The school's budget deficit is already at $85,000 this year, and Lydon expects it to increase. If the school stayed open next year, the deficit would rise to $120,000.

Raffle tickets can't compensate for this much red ink.

If anyone knows this, it's the parents and parishioners in the St. Pius V school basement. They've kept the school alive this long; they're troupers. Now that their school faces consolidation with Notre Dame Elementary, gallows humor masks any bitterness or disappointment.

By the end of the meeting, it's clear that the Holy Ghost hasn't inspired anyone with any new solution and that nobody knows anyone with a million dollars to give away.

"I would love for someone to die and leave us a million dollars," says Stein, "but I don't think it's going to happen."

When you ask a pastor at a beleaguered parish how long he's been there, you usually get an exact answer. Ask the Reverend Tim Cook how long he has been pastor at Visitation-Shrine of St. Ann, one block north of Page Avenue, and he'll tell you: five-and-a-half years.

Cook has been fighting a holding action in North St. Louis for the archdiocese as parishes merge and the area empties out. His current project is the consolidation of two elementary schools -- Bishop Healy, on Kingshighway a few blocks north of Martin Luther King Drive; and St. Engelbert, about a mile away on Carter Avenue.

Bishop Healy has an enrollment of about 150, and St. Engelbert has 165.

"We're both way under 200 kids, and it's nearly impossible to run a school like that," says Cook. "We just don't have the reserves."

Such numbers make the choice an obvious one, says George Henry, the superintendent of Catholic education for the archdiocese: Consolidate the schools or keep empty buildings open.

But that goes against the grain of the historial prototype for parochial schools -- one church, one school, with the pastor of that parish in charge of the school through the principal.

As the population of North St. Louis declined, though, this model no longer worked. In a move to salvage Catholic education in this part of the city, the archdiocese kept fewer schools open and designated a ring of nearby churches as feeder parishes that funneled kids to the surviving schools.

But Cook says this new model couldn't change the inevitable. As more people left North St. Louis, the archdiocese has been forced to consolidate two more schools -- Bishop Healy and St. Engelbert.

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