Parochial Concerns

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

In St. Louis, there's an implied meaning when people say "north," because much of North St. Louis and North St. Louis County is African-American. It's a marker of both race and economic station.

But for parochial schools, the municipal manifest destiny is to head west for affluence or status. Generally it's "east is least, west is best." Schools in the west tend to be more upscale and attract students when other schools close.

Brown found that out last year when Holy Innocents School, across South Kingshighway from Tower Grove Park, closed. St. Aloysius, on the Hill, closed at the same time. St. Margaret is within a couple miles of both schools, but the pastors of those parishes did not talk to Brown about a consolidation or sending students to his school -- his school was east. Most of the students stayed on the Hill, at St. Ambrose, or went to St. Mary Magdalene or St. Joan of Arc -- all to the west.

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.

"They didn't talk to us, except by way of a courtesy call," says Brown. "I knew about it. They didn't look to us as an alternative. They looked to St. Ambrose or to Joan of Arc. People who lived west of Kingshighway I don't really think thought of coming east of Kingshighway to go to school. It's just a fact."

Even when Henry talks about schools in the city, he uses the east-west dynamic.

"If you go down Grand from the water tower to Carondelet Park and go east, there is just not much population left there, and that population is increasingly non-Catholic; it's increasingly poor," says Henry. "We can't run schools without sufficient clients to be served there."

In the city, parishes in the southwest section of the city have benefited from the westward drift, with parishes such as St. Gabriel the Archangel, St. Raphael the Archangel and Our Lady of Sorrows raising funds to handle growing or steady enrollment.

Even parochial schools only slightly to the west seem to benefit. Twenty-one families who live within the St. Pius V Parish boundaries send their children to Holy Family School, less than a mile to the west.

At the same time, only 38 of the 148 students at St. Pius come from families within the parish. Most of the other students come from areas not served by a parochial school.

"That's telling, it seems to me," says Lydon. "We're educating St. Thomas of Aquin's kids; there's a good chunk of kids from there, twenty or so. There's some other nonaffiliated Catholics, and then a whole host of folks who aren't Catholic -- which is fine; it's melded well with our mission. It's become less a parish-based school; it's more of a private Catholic neighborhood school. That's the reality."

By now Lydon knows that the parochial-school system is in an openly competitive market for students.

"I was shocked one day a couple years ago going down Hartford [Street], the number of kids who were out wearing Catholic-school uniforms who I didn't recognize," says Lydon. "Where are these kids going? They're going to St. Margaret's or they're going to Holy Family. That's the deal."

In the competition for students, such interparish crossovers are not uncommon. But there's a price. St. Pius V School has a multinational enrollment that is mostly Vietnamese but includes some African immigrants and African-American students. That could be a factor in St. Pius' dwindling number of white students -- just 22 percent of the student body is white.

Henry isn't surprised.

"If some people don't want to be part of a school community that has Bosnians or African-Americans or whatever, they'll make decisions with their feet," says Henry, "but we're not going to make decisions to separate that out. Notre Dame has always had a rich diversity of different groups there. This becomes one more there. Hopefully that will work and will sustain itself."

Henry also says the Catholic Church has a mission to serve the immigrants and refugees who will make up a large part of the student body after the consolidation of St. Pius V and Notre Dame.

"We want to help that school. We see this new American immigrant who's coming into the city as just repeating a cycle from 150 years ago, from a different part of the world," says Henry. "We want to be responsive, to the best of our ability. Many of these people are diligent, hardworking, but they don't have money. Financially, they can't do it."

The decision by Archbishop Justin Rigali to close the three South County schools and their churches flabbergasted Bob Radomski, a parishioner at one of the churches -- Most Precious Blood -- for 40 years.

Radomski, who sent his six children to the parish school, says the church had its debt paid off and $492,000 in the bank. He knew the school was going to run a $70,000 deficit this year but says parishioners were willing to underwrite it.

"The archbishop was 27 years over in Rome," says Radomski. "In Rome, they do what they want to do. This felt like Rome."

Whatever reason the archdiocese had, it applied a quicker trigger finger in the suburbs than it did in the city. Parochial schools in the county that limp along behind parishes with shrinking congregations had better take notice. When the archdiocese thinks the herd needs to be thinned, the church may go down with the school.

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