A growing number of catholic schools are shutting down forever

By Giulia McDonell Nieto Del Rio

In more than four decades of coaching girls basketball at Lebanon Catholic High School in southeastern Pennsylvania, Patti Hower had led the team to three state championships and 20 district titles. This year, with four starting players returning, there were high hopes again.

But then in April came the news: the Roman Catholic Diocese of Harrisburg announced that the school, whose origins date to 1859, was permanently closing, citing insurmountable financial stress, exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

“We played our last game in March and had a postgame talk saying, ‘We’re looking forward to this upcoming year,’” said Hower, 68, who attended the school, like her father and granddaughters. “We never thought, ‘Hey, we’re never going to get on that court together again as a team.’”

As schools around the country debate how to reopen safely, a growing number of Catholic schools — already facing declining enrollments and donations from before the pandemic — are shutting down for good.

About 150 Catholic schools have closed, said Kathy Mears, director of the National Catholic Educational Association, equal to about 2% of the 6,183 schools that were up and running last year. The number of closures is at least 50% higher this year than in previous years, Mears said.

In Boston, the archdiocese has had to close nine schools so far, and about two dozen others are on a “watch list,” said Thomas Carroll, superintendent of schools for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. In early July, the Archdiocese of New York announced that it would be closing 20 Catholic schools.

As parents and families lost their jobs during the pandemic, many could no longer pay tuition at Catholic schools, even though fees are generally much less than at other private schools. And when churches began shutting down to curb the spread of the virus, that also ended a major source for donations — some of which would normally be allotted for parish schools.

For many schools after years of declining enrollments, the coronavirus became the mortal strike. “If a school was financially vulnerable, the pandemic was the thing that pushed them over the edge,” Mears said.

Enrollment at Catholic schools in the United States peaked at 5.2 million nationwide in the early 1960s, according to the National Catholic Educational Association. But as the percentage of practicing Catholics has declined across the United States, so has the number of children enrolling in Catholic schools. Enrollment for the 2019-20 school year was down to about 1.7 million.

The closing of the parochial schools has etched a profound sense of loss among teachers and families, who face the abrupt disappearance of spaces that long served as focal points for personal relationships and family ties.

The Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston reported the closure of four schools in April, saying that fallout from COVID-19 was the final blow for facilities long struggling to meet costs.

“The cataclysmic effects of this pandemic have left us with no options — which breaks out hearts,” Cardinal Daniel DiNardo said in a statement.

One of those schools, St. Francis of Assisi, had been severely damaged by Hurricane Harvey in 2017, but community members had worked hard to support rebuilding efforts and welcome students back in the fall of 2018, said Sharita Palmer Mayo, whose two sons attended the school. Less than two years later, the closure has forced families to look elsewhere for schooling once again.

“We had literally just like built a little family there,” Palmer Mayo said. “I was in love with the school.”

Among the best-known Catholic schools shutting its doors is the Institute of Notre Dame, a renowned all-girls facility founded in Baltimore in 1847. School leaders said that the school was deeply in debt and facing a 43% enrollment decline over the past five years. In a letter they noted that the coronavirus “caused significant, added financial hardship.”

Prominent alumni include House speaker Nancy Pelosi and a former Democratic senator for Maryland, Barbara A. Mikulski.

“It was painful for everybody,” said Sister Patricia Murphy, the chair of the board of trustees at the school. Murphy is part of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, a congregation of sisters who sponsor the Institute of Notre Dame. She added that she believed the decision to close the school was a necessary one.

Murphy graduated from the school in 1962 and said that the education and the friendships forged there would forever stay close to her heart. “My classmates Zoom every other week,” she noted in an interview.

After graduating, Murphy attended a public teachers college. When she told a male dean at the college that she wanted to be a high school history teacher, he responded: “‘What would a little thing like you want to do that for? Why wouldn’t you want to be an elementary schoolteacher?’”

But Murphy wouldn’t stand for that after her education at the Institute of Notre Dame, she said. “I was stunned,” she said, and she still went on to become a high school history teacher.

At Notre Dame, girls “got a really good sense of what women could do,” Murphy said.

Still, some alumni are fighting to keep the school open, upset that school leaders, including the School Sisters of Notre Dame, haven’t pushed harder to avoid closure. Drena Fertetta, an alumnus who graduated from Notre Dame in 1983, began a group called Saving IND Inc., dedicated to reopening the school next year, perhaps at a different site.

“There is just a sisterhood that happens to the girls who go to that school,” Fertetta said. “It’s not something we’re willing to just walk away from.”

Catholic education was once seen as “the surest ticket out of poverty for generations of low-income families, but in particular immigrants,” Carroll, the superintendent in Boston, said. “Schools that got hit the hardest were schools that were low-income and working-class populations.”

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles — which runs the largest Catholic school system in the country, serving about 73,000 students — has had to close two elementary schools, one that served predominantly Latino children, many of them with working-class parents, said Paul Escala, superintendent and senior director of Catholic schools for the archdiocese.

At present, Escala said, the church is trying to “avoid at all costs” shutting down additional schools, but the economic challenges are daunting.

“You get to a tipping point where the school may not be able to sustain itself any longer,” he said. “The consequences are going to come, the only question is really when.”

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