Lydon and Siderewicz, pastor and principal, use an overhead projector to deliver the bad news: St. Pius V School, open for 96 years, will close at the end of the school year. The recommendation is to consolidate with a nearby school, Notre Dame Elementary. Students from both schools will attend class in Notre Dame's building. Keeping St. Pius V School open seems unlikely.
"Unless anybody gets a huge inspiration from the Holy Spirit tonight and says, 'Here's something you haven't thought of' or 'I got a million bucks or a guy who wants to give it to us,'" Lydon tells the group.
Failing that, St. Pius V School will cease to exist, another casualty of the major upheaval that is hitting Catholic education in the city and its inner-ring suburbs. Another piece of St. Louis' shrinking network of parochial schools will fall away, weakening an education option city residents, Catholic and non-Catholic, have counted on for decades.
What were once taken for granted -- the strong links among the local parish, its neighborhood and its school -- are being swept aside by rising costs and open competition for students by surviving parochial schools, a scramble that ignores parish boundaries and religious preferences.
In the basement of St. Pius V School, the unwelcome news is delivered in two languages, a reflection of the shifting ethnic reality of a parish where half the students are Vietnamese. In a classroom used for art instruction at the rear of the basement, a nun tells Vietnamese parents the same news in their native language, a muffled sound that can be heard in the main room.
Up front, Lydon and Siderewicz face a quiet group of parents. No one expresses shock or anger. No one's voice is raised. The pastor and principal are upbeat, stressing that Notre Dame has a similar mix of students, with a significant number of immigrant and refugee children.
Parents ask tentative questions. Some suggest that the new arrangement will not work for them. "It's not a good fit for us," says Terri Linn, who co-chaired the school's annual picnic. Her two children usually walk to school and would have to cross Gravois Avenue, a busy street, to attend Notre Dame.
Kate Hartz thinks it's a good match because some of the students already know each other from playing on sports teams together. Hartz, a Lutheran, has a son in fifth grade at St. Pius; her daughter graduated two years ago. Hartz says she has "loved our years at St. Pius," but she is worried that some of St. Pius' kids will be shut out of the consolidated school.
"My concern is, we need to serve every child who is in school at this time," says Hartz. "If they go with fourteen of their classmates, it's much more comfortable than 'Oh, we can take five, but the rest of you can't go.'"
As the question-and-answer session continues, Peggy Stein, a mother of seven, sits in the third row and knits. For years, she has run the funnel-cake booth at the school picnic. She organizes an annual tailgate sale on the school playground. She's a den mother for Cub Scouts.
When Lydon calls on her for input, she voices a more fundamental concern than the survival of the school: Could the parish itself be closed? Three parishes in South County have just been shut down, and Stein worries that St. Pius V is facing the same fate.
"I feel strongly we need to protect the parish," she says. "I don't want the archdiocese coming in, saying, 'You guys aren't making it because of the school.' I'm mad at the archdiocese about what they're doing to those parishes in South County, and they could do that to us."
Stein's concerns reflect the cold reality of Catholic education.
For years, changing demographics and increasing personnel costs have jeopardized parochial schools in transitional neighborhoods -- both in the city and its near suburbs.
In the last two years, new charter schools in the city have siphoned students away from adjacent parochial schools. And the city's surviving parochial schools have had to compete for students from outside their parish boundaries -- whether those students are Catholic or not.
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.
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.
In South St. Louis, the proposed consolidation of St. Pius V and Notre Dame may have a better chance of succeeding because Notre Dame, at Oregon and Gravois avenues, has been the school for five feeder parishes for 30 years. With the addition of the St. Pius V parish, the consolidated school will have six feeder parishes.
But there are clear signs that the archdiocese is abandoning the feeder system in the inner-ring suburban parishes. Last year, both in North County and South County, the archdiocese folded parishes and schools simultaneously, creating one parish and one school where several parishes and several schools once thrived.
Cold demographics drive such moves, says Henry -- and a recognition that the health of the school is linked to the health of the parish itself. As the sizes of parish congregations in the inner-ring suburbs decrease and the average age of the parishioners rises, archdiocese officials realize they can't just consolidate schools and leave the parishes alone as they did in North St. Louis.
"We closed the schools, but the parishes were not part of that planning process.... You can't run a parish with 100 people showing up on Sunday and then maintain [a school]," says Henry.
Decentralization has always been hailed as the main strength of the parochial-school system. But that model only works when parish schools are self-sufficient. As more parochial schools encounter economic difficulty, they need help from the archdiocese, which has been criticized for not doing enough to help troubled schools stay open.
Such criticism was amplified by the recent decision to shut down St. Thomas Aquinas-Mercy High School in North County, adding to the heat the archdiocese faced for shutting down the three South County schools and parishes.
Even as the archdiocese is criticized for closing parish-based schools, it is being slammed for spending money on fancier facilities, such as Cardinal Ritter College Prep, a $26 million school being built in Midtown. Of that total, $8 million came from the archdiocese.
There's a racial component to the Cardinal Ritter criticism. About 70 percent of its students are non-Catholic, and its enrollment is virtually all-African-American. Critics point out that about 5 percent of African Americans are Catholic.
Henry is accustomed to this heat, which he compares to the ill will most people hold for institutions.
"It's a concept like not liking the federal government or the state government," says Henry. "There's something about a bureaucracy of any sort -- that there's evil at the top."
Although the archdiocese does subsidize some of the added expense of pay raises for teachers, parish schools shouldn't expect a financial bailout, says the Reverend Kenneth Brown, pastor of St. Margaret of Scotland in the Shaw neighborhood.
"They [the archdiocese] don't have a pot of gold either," says Brown. "I've been too much involved in diocesan level things to know the money isn't sitting there to go out in checks. It just isn't.
"People have this notion that the archbishop is lurking around every corner monitoring everything we do," says Brown. "It's just not true. He entrusts us with the care of our people, the school and the parish, and unless we really mess up, he's not intervening."
The archdiocese often assists individual elementary schools but has been reluctant to set up a regular revenue-sharing plan. It does levy an "assessment" on each parish; the money goes into a central fund that helps finance the eleven archdiocesan high schools. No such fund exists for parochial elementary schools, although money is used to assist schools on a case-by-case basis.
About $1 million goes each year to help about ten schools, and about 60 needy parishes get some level of assistance to help pay teachers' salaries. But this money comes from the Archdiocesan Development Appeal and other funds, not from a pot of money designated for parochial schools.
That leaves parishes with a tough choice: tuition increases that could force some parents to pull their kids from schools.
St. Margaret of Scotland's school has increased tuition by about $500 for next year, kicking it up to $3,250 for the first enrolled child. Like most parochial schools, the tuition for each additional child is much less than that for the first child.
Brown's school has the advantage of having some pockets of upper-middle-class residents, but he worries about the effect of any tuition increase.
"That's a pretty big jump," says Brown. "The people I'm most concerned with in that are the folks who struggle to pay tuition as it is. I don't want us to become a school for the elite or just people who can afford it. It's important that we have that kind of mix in our school. Everybody benefits from that."
The pay increase for teachers has posed a budget challenge for many parochial schools. But Mary Chubb, the head of the Association of Catholic Elementary Educators, says the real problem is a lack of leadership. She favors stronger central control by the archdiocese.
"The hypocrisy is that in our teachers' organization, what we're always told is that the pastor is the employer, he's in charge of the parish, responsible for everything. The archbishop has washed his hands of all that -- which is not the way it is," says Chubb.
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.
"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."
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."
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.
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.
"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.
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."
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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