Parochial Concerns

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

Suburbia inside Interstate 270 seems to be the next area for the archdiocese to sort through. Its Catholic population has grown older and has fixed incomes, smaller housing stock and fewer children.

And what the church faces in the suburbs is different from what it faced in the city. In St. Louis, churches were often geographically close but separated by the ethnic origins of their congregations.

"With Holy Name and [Our Lady of] Perpetual Help, the tower of one could fall on the other, but one was Irish, one was German, so there was no sense in those two coming together," says Henry. "You had parishes that came out of the European-immigration thing."

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.

These city churches were emptied by white flight to the suburbs -- the Germans and the Irish fled to points west. In the suburbs, the faithful haven't left so much as grown old.

They show up on Sundays but don't have kids in school. And once they die, their places in the pews may stay empty. That's a bad formula for both the parish and its school.

Suburbs or city, it's a wrenching time for Catholic education, says Kathleen Anger, who taught for eight years at St. John the Baptist Elementary, near the city's Bevo Mill neighborhood, before becoming its principal eight years ago.

She has seen enrollment at her elementary school drop from 500 to 265 students. Her school is safe for now, but she doesn't think any parish is immune from the archdiocesan ax.

"When you see a school close or merge, you realize how everybody is going through a difficult time," says Anger. "I don't think anyone can look at it and think, 'Oh, this is never going to happen.' You're not facing reality."

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