Parochial Concerns

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

But even with that parental commitment and all that external help, survival doesn't come easy. The student body is virtually all non-Catholic and mostly African-American. Even though there has been a Catholic school on the site since 1849, not everyone knows there's a school inside the concrete-walled perimeter.

"The school has certainly had a strong tradition of excellent Catholic education in this neighborhood, but the more the neighborhood has struggled, the more the school has struggled," says McCann. "People have moved out, and more and more people in the surrounding area are not Catholic. So one of our great missions is to help folks understand that to get a Catholic education, you don't have to be rich and you don't have to be Catholic.

"This is certainly not a school for elitists."

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.

Susan Lohse knew Most Precious Blood Elementary School in Mehlville as well as anything in her world. She graduated from the parochial school on Union Road, and her twins, a boy and a girl, are in their ninth year of school there, ready to graduate this spring. Another son was going to enter kindergarten there next fall.

Then a letter from the archdiocese arrived in November.

Along with St. Timothy and Mary Queen of the Universe, her school and her parish were about to close. Just a few years ago, the archdiocesan newspaper, the St. Louis Review, had featured Most Precious Blood as one of the area's "exemplary" churches.

"We feel like they pulled the rug out from under us," says Lohse. "I felt such disappointment."

Since her twins first started school there, enrollment has dipped to about 130 from 175, and there was talk about merging with nearby schools. But the decision to close the parish shocked Lohse.

"The parish is in the black," says Lohse. "We've got money in the bank. We've been described as an exemplary parish. 'We're closing? OK, thank you very much.'"

Cook, the priest who is navigating the consolidation of Bishop Healy and St. Engelbert schools in North St. Louis, sympathizes with Lohse. But he also thinks last year's parish and school consolidations in North County and the fuss in South County are strong signals of the current reality of the Catholic education system.

"It's an eye-opener for a lot of them who might still think it's the same parochial system it was when they were kids, that there's a lot of nuns-who-work-for-nothing kind of thing: 'My parents didn't have to pay tuition; why is it so expensive now?' I think it's been a wake-up call in a lot of ways," says Cook.

The new reality of Catholic education forces parochial schools to scramble for students. For schools in largely African-American areas, recruiting non-Catholics is fundamental because few African-Americans are Catholic.

"You're not going to attract a Catholic population; you're going to attract families committed to wanting a quality education, a safe and disciplined environment for their kids and a chance for their kids to go on to post-secondary education and get out of poverty," says Henry.

Traditionally, parochial schools have been open to non-Catholics. But these days, this openness has shifted to active competition for students. Attracting and recruiting students from outside the parish is a must for many schools.

"Historically those territorial parish boundaries had pretty high walls," says Henry. "Even with our high schools, it used to be if you don't live in this particular high school's area, that was your only choice. Those walls have been pretty much knocked down."

In the case of St. Margaret of Scotland, the school draws on its own parish boundaries, encompassing the Shaw neighborhood, and also pulls students from the upscale city neighborhoods of Compton Heights and Lafayette Square because neither of those areas has a neighborhood parochial school.

Brown says parishioners conducted planning studies about ten years ago that helped position the school after some rough years in the '80s. The school's two Montessori classes, from preschool through kindergarten, have also been a plus.

"Montessori is a big, big seller," says Brown. "We're dealing with parents, both of whom work. To be able to put your children in a well-supervised educational program for three-, four- and five-year-olds, that's really a boon. Once those folks are with us, they see the whole school's operation and like what they see."

St. Margaret's school enrollment also demonstrates a mix of income levels. Brown calls the expensive homes that line the six-block stretch of median-divided Flora Place just east of Shaw's Garden the "spine of the parish." The homes sell for $250,000 and up.

"I wouldn't call the people who live there wealthy, but they're certainly middle-class or upper-middle-class, and they send their kids to our school," says Brown, "so that coupled with some pretty rough, poorer sections of this neighborhood makes for a good mix in a school."

Many other parishes are not so fortunate. The St. Pius V parish has Utah Place, with its $400,000 houses, but that row of mansions is only one block long.

For city parishes, and even those in the close-in suburbs, another bit of socioeconomic geography is evident: East and west is becoming as important as north and south.

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