Decline of Catholic schools tough to reverse

Msgr. Hugh McManus mingles with his congregation after

Msgr. Hugh McManus mingles with his congregation after Mass at Our Lady of Fatima in Scarsdale. (Jan. 27, 2013) Photo Credit: Faye Murman

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Every morning, Victor Manoli loads his fourth-grader, Giovanna, into his Volkswagen Jetta to drive along winding Route 32 from his home in Acra to St. Mary of the Snow Catholic School in Saugerties. Every evening, he makes the same drive to pick Giovanna up.

Traveling 110 miles a day, Manoli has racked up some 80,000 miles on the car in three years, all so his daughter can get a Catholic education.

He started making the drives in 2006. That's when St. Patrick Academy in Catskill closed and the family transferred an older son to St. Mary of the Snow. Now that St. Mary's is scheduled to close, Manoli is wondering about the future of Catholic schools in general.

"I feel like it's a slap in the face from the church. How is my daughter going to get a Catholic education?" Manoli said.

With each round of school closings, officials from the Archdiocese of New York have said that the new closings would lay a sturdy foundation for Catholic education in the state. Yet parish schools continue to face pressures, including a decline in attendance at church each Sunday, rising costs for operations and economic conditions that make private schools prohibitively expensive for middle-class families.

Concerned parents and expert observers of trends in education worry that there isn't a Band-Aid big enough for the economic and demographic problems facing Catholic education.

"They keep saying we're pruning to get stronger and grow and then they keep on pruning. When does it stop?" said Patrick McCloskey, a clinical instructor at the Center for Catholic School Effectiveness at Loyola University in Chicago.


In the six-county Hudson Valley region, 30 Catholic elementary schools -- nearly 37 percent of all parish schools -- have closed since 2008. Ulster and Putnam counties each have just one Catholic elementary school remaining. Rockland has seen half of its Catholic schools shuttered. And in densely populated Westchester County, the round of school closures announced by the archdiocese Jan. 22. means that, in all, 14 elementary schools and two high schools will have closed in just six years.

The decline in the Hudson Valley is significantly sharper than the trend nationwide. Across the country, 9 percent of Catholic schools were closed from the 2006-07 school year to the 2011-12 year.

The trend of recent closures extends decades of losses that stretch back to the peak of Catholic education in the 1960s, according to the National Catholic Educational Agency.

"There's a long-standing tradition of Catholic education in this region, and it's a shame if Westchester County and the surrounding region can't continue to uphold that tradition," said Laurence Gottlieb, director of the Westchester County Office of Economic Development.

Both demographic and economic factors have affected Catholic education in the region. For one thing, there are fewer Catholics in the Hudson Valley -- down 11 percent from 2000 to 2010, according to the Association of Religion Data Archives.

"It's a confluence of a lot of different things: demographic shifts, economy, change in beliefs," Gottlieb said. "But I personally think right now the accelerant is the economy."

Gottlieb explained that there are now far fewer families who can afford private school tuition. The archdiocese is in the same position. Officials there have explained that it no longer can afford to subsidize increasingly expensive schools.

According to a recent study by the National Catholic Education Association, tuition at Catholic elementary schools nationwide averaged $3,673 during the 2011-2012 school year, and tuition at Catholic high schools averaged $8,182. Costs in the Hudson Valley tend to be significantly higher than national averages, with many Catholic elementary schools charging more than $5,000 a year for a single student.

"The rise in homeowner taxes and school taxes that everybody is paying today doesn't help people provide a Catholic education for their kids," said Beth Rooney, president of the Home School Association for St. Augustine in Haverstraw, which is slated to close in June.

The archdiocese is banking on its regionalization plan to stabilize the decline. The regionalization plan shifts governance of parish schools from a local pastor to regional education boards. The strategy also requires every parish -- whether it has a school or not -- to help pay for Catholic schools.

Msgr. Hugh McManus of Our Lady of Fatima School in Scarsdale told his parishioners Sunday that the church was sacrificing the Scarsdale school for the good of the church as a whole.

"We're being asked to close our school so that other schools can survive," McManus said.


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Some parents of children at schools designated for closure believe the church is engineering its own demise by pulling back from its investments in education.

McCloskey said that from the mid-19th century to the 1960s Catholic schools were the church's engine, powering a rise to the nation's largest denomination.

"This is a decision the archdiocese is going to regret," said Rosemary Borges, a mother of three who all attended Our Lady of Fatima School. "These kids are the future of the Catholic faith."

Parents also can lose their connection to the parish when a school disappears. Manoli didn't just drop his daughter off at St. Mary. His family attended church there and he volunteered at the school, serving pizza to the kids every Friday.

"We made our family down there," Manoli said, noting he's unsure whether his family will continue attending services at the parish church.

Rooney also felt that the closures would have a long-term effect on parishes.

"This is rocking people's faith because you're ripping schools out from underneath them," Rooney said.


The Rev. John Piderit, president of the Catholic Education Institute in New York, sees a paradigm shift in Catholic education.

He said Monday that he believes the archdiocese's regionalization plan can work to keep educating students at the schools that remain. But Piderit sees future growth in Catholic education coming from new models such as after-school programs.

"It's not going to be the same thing that we had and was very successful and wonderful for over 100 years," Piderit said. "But it's not going be nothing, either."

In order to stop the downward spiral, McCloskey said the Catholic Church needs to again prioritize parish schools.

"If you look at the overall picture of parishes and diocese, there is enough funding flowing through to stop the bleeding if it's truly a priority," McCloskey said.

Archdiocese Superintendent of Schools Timothy J. McNiff did not return a call for comment.

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