Parochial Concerns

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

As proof, Chubb points to the situation in South County, in which the three parishes along Union Road were closed. Pastors weren't running that show, she says. It is also evidence that when the archdiocese wants to step in, it does.

"If the pastors are supposed to be the ones in charge, they haven't been aggressive. If the archbishop is supposed to be in charge, he has not been aggressive," says Chubb. "The only ones who have spoken up have been the teachers. When we have done some of that, we've been criticized for it."

Chubb, who teaches at St. Elizabeth of Hungary in Crestwood, knows first-hand the predicament of a small suburban school. Enrollment at her school has dipped below 200 students, and she wonders whether "the handwriting is on the wall." Whatever happens, she wishes the archdiocese would do more to assist schools on the bubble, particularly schools in poorer areas.

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.

"The basic foundation of our faith is to help the lowly and the poor, but we don't see that happening in the dramatic way that it should be," says Chubb. "We should be very concerned about what's happening with the children and families in the city and should be very interested in what's happening to children in that inner suburban ring. While there are parishes where the pastors set a real example and model of sharing all that we've been blessed with, there are others who don't."

There's another way troubled inner-city parish schools can survive: partner with a rich parish out in the suburbs.

That's how Most Holy Trinity Catholic School, located in Hyde Park, just north of downtown, helps make ends meet -- the school relies on money it gets from St. Anselm parish in West County.

But this relationship is the exception that proves the rule. Most Holy Trinity may be a model, but its method of survival may also explain why parochial schools in disadvantaged areas have trouble staying alive.

They haven't formed the kinds of affiliations Most Holy Trinity has. And judging by current dynamics, they probably won't.

Even with the partnership the school has struck with St. Anselm, it's hard to see how Most Holy Trinity manages to keep its doors open.

The school has about 90 students in kindergarten through eighth grade; all of its students are on some kind of tuition assistance. To cut costs, the school has combined two grades into one classroom. As defined by eligibility for free or reduced-price lunches, 80 percent of its students are below the poverty line.

On the upside, the school gets 38 percent of its budget from the archdiocese. It also gets a generous slug of grant money from religious orders such as the Sisters of Notre Dame, the Sisters of St. Joseph and the Adorers of the Blood of Christ.

But the school couldn't make it without its independent arrangement with St. Anselm.

"That becomes a wonderful safety net to operate a school," says Henry. "We don't have many -- we don't have any -- that are blessed in that same capacity. St. Anselm's happens to be a rather wealthy parish."

St. Anselm has been helping Most Holy Trinity for twelve years. Representatives of the two parishes meet monthly. Every fall, a tuition-assistance collection is taken up at St. Anselm for Most Holy Trinity.

Some of the assistance extends to sharing of connections and information, says Sister Janet McCann, Most Holy Trinity's principal.

"There are all the in-kind services. We say, 'Our next step is to do this.' They have people they know; they say, 'You know what, I'll have so-and-so call you because they may be able to help you think that through.' So it's not like they all come and do everything for us, but they help us think through how to make this work to the best of our abilities and the finances we have," says McCann. "It's an amazing connection."

But it's not Most Holy Trinity's only connection. Aside from archdiocesan support and help from a wealthy West County parish, the school is aided by a source that was once the foundation for thriving parochial schools -- nuns.

"Most Catholic schools have no nuns. We have four who are full-time," says McCann. "They believe in what we are doing."

And what they're doing goes beyond the basics. Most Holy Trinity has a music curriculum patterned after that of a Catholic school in New York City. Now in its fourth year, the program includes violin instruction, visual-arts and ballroom dancing. Sister Joyelle Proot, associate principal, says the intent was to offer something unique at the school.

"We went to New York; we saw children who were excited to be there," says Proot. "That was the excitement we were trying to create."

In some ways, Most Holy Trinity's mission is almost missionary. Staffers talk plainly about turning around the "generational poverty" of their neighborhood, clearly a challenge that West County parishes don't face in their backyards.

"We're here to make a change. What we know about generational poverty is that it takes three generations to turn that tide," Proot says she tells the parents. "They have brought their children here and made extraordinary sacrifices so their children can be here; they are taking the first step."

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