Imploding Catholic Church

Cardinal: Closing 7 schools unavoidable in cash-strapped district

By Manya Brachear Pashman,
Chicago Tribune

Chicago Archdiocese’s plans to close 7 schools, merge 6 others come as it faces multimillion-dollar deficit.
‘He’s the one who’s taking it the hardest,’ dad of Des Plaines student says of archdiocese’s school closings.
‘Supporting many low-enrollment schools … spreads our scarce resources very thin,’ Cardinal George says.
In one of Cardinal Francis George’s final acts before retirement, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago will shutter seven elementary schools and consolidate six more by next school year, church officials announced Wednesday.

George said the decision, which comes as the archdiocese confronts a deficit totaling millions of dollars, would strengthen the remaining schools.

“We remain as committed as ever to Catholic education,” George wrote in a column Wednesday for the archdiocese’s newspaper. “… We will not be able to maintain all schools in their current form, however.”

The closings, set to affect more than 1,200 students and more than 200 employees, stand out in that, unlike past shutdowns in which some schools got reprieves, all decisions this time are final.

Catholic school closings, consolidations detailed by archdiocese (map)
Catholic school closings, consolidations detailed by archdiocese (map)
Chicago Tribune Graphics
Reaction from parents and others was as wide-ranging as the demographics the affected schools serve, ranging from anger to sadness to resignation.

“To quote our fourth-grader, our 9-year-old, ‘This is stupid,’” said Tom Ramsden, whose two sons attend Our Lady of Destiny Catholic School in Des Plaines. “He’s the one who’s taking it the hardest.”

Schools that will close at the end of the academic year are: St. Agatha Catholic Academy, 3151 W. Douglas Blvd. in Chicago; St. Peter, 8140 Niles Center Road, Skokie; St. Hyacinth Basilica, 3640 W. Wolfram St., Chicago; St. Ladislaus, 3330 N. Lockwood Ave., Chicago; St. Turibius, 4120 W. 57th St., Chicago; St. Rene Goupil, 6340 S. New England Ave., Chicago; and St. Lawrence O’Toole, 4101 St. Lawrence Ave., Matteson.

Holy Cross in Deerfield will merge with St. James in Highwood. In Des Plaines, Our Lady of Destiny will merge with St. Zachary. In Chicago, St. Dorothy in the Chatham neighborhood and St. Columbanus in Park Manor will merge to form a new school with a new curriculum.

lRelated Cardinal George honors area Catholics for their service

Cardinal George honors area Catholics for their service

St. Agatha in North Lawndale could become an early childhood center in partnership with Catholic Charities, which could also partner with the Nativity early childhood center in Marquette Park.

Incoming Archbishop Blase Cupich, whose tenure begins Nov. 18, was informed of the consolidation, George said.

Thomas McGrath, chief operating officer for archdiocese schools, said the archdiocese intends to provide a “well-lit path” for the displaced students.

“Any decision we made we know there are open seats in quality schools nearby,” McGrath said, adding that 90 percent of students displaced by archdiocese school closings last year enrolled in another Catholic school. “These outcomes will stabilize the system. We know that the nearby schools that will, we trust, welcome the affected students will become stronger and more sustainable.”
The archdiocese held meetings with more than 30 schools in May, said Sister Mary Paul McCaughey, schools superintendent. She added that in addition to enrollment, demographic projections, financial stability and the availability of nearby schools factored into the decisions.

In more than 20 percent of the neighborhoods, the school-age population declined by 15 percent or more from 2000 to 2013, George said.

“Even with new scholarships, many of these schools were not able to grow in student numbers,” he said. “Supporting many low-enrollment schools, particularly those with demographic challenges, spreads our scarce resources very thin and limits our ability to invest dollars in strengthening viable school offerings for our students.”

Enrollment in Catholic schools across Cook and Lake Counties has plunged in the nearly five decades since its 1965 peak of 366,000. Then, there were 524 schools, some of them packed with 1,000 or more students. This year, only 82,000 children are enrolled in the system’s 240 schools.

Many closings have been on the city’s South and West sides, where schools were built to serve working-class Irish, Italian and German neighborhoods. As the neighborhoods changed, the schools emptied and parish funds dried up. Many of those schools have had to rely heavily on subsidies from the archdiocese, which are no longer guaranteed.

In his column Wednesday, George said those subsidies have created “unsustainable operating deficits,” reaching more than $23 million in fiscal year 2012. While protocols have been put in place to reduce that level of support, subsidies still totaled $18 million in the fiscal year 2014 that just ended.

McGrath declined to say how much support the shuttered schools received from the archdiocese.

Chicago Catholic archdiocese decides to close and consolidate some schools
The archdiocese of Chicago decided to close and consolidate schools citing low enrollment and shifting demographics.
George added that the financial viability of the parochial school system also depends on a capital campaign launched last year. That campaign has raised more than $80 million, almost a quarter of its $350 million goal. At least $150 million will go toward a centrally administered scholarship fund that will be placed in a trust to grow. In an appeal for donations last week, George disclosed that he personally had written Catholic schools into his will.

Families at many schools received an email about their school’s closing Wednesday afternoon.

Elias Flores, whose 13-year-old daughter, Alyssa, will be in the last graduating class at St. Turibius, said the decision made practical sense. With only 130 students enrolled there, sports and activities had declined, which disappointed his daughter, an aspiring volleyball player.

“When she first started in here it seemed there were a lot more kids enrolled,” he said. “I feel bad for the other students who probably wanted to continue to come here.”

In the largely Latino, middle-class community of Highwood, those with close ties to St. James were reeling from the news of the merger with Deerfield’s Holy Cross.

Rosa Stefani, 41, attended St. James for kindergarten through eighth grade. Her parents were both immigrants from Italy, she said, who had saved up money to send their three children to St. James.

Stefani’s husband also went there, as did her siblings, her husband’s siblings and her mother-in-law.

But when it came time to decide where her own children would go, Stefani said her family opted for Oak Terrace Elementary School, a public school in Highwood, in part because it was a new facility and offered a dual-language program.

Wednesday’s news left her feeling guilty.

“I’m very sad,” Stefani said.

“Part of it could be that a lot of us didn’t send our kids there,” she added.

Seeing the writing on the wall, the pastors at St. Dorothy and St. Columbanus seven blocks away presented their own plan to the archdiocese. Enrollments at the two schools, whose students are mostly African-American and non-Catholic, had fallen below the required 225 minimum.

The schools will merge to become Augustus Tolton Catholic Academy, named for the nation’s first African-American priest, for whom the archdiocese is pursuing a cause for sainthood. Parishioners, parents and staff found out about the merger last week, and pastors at both parishes read letters from their pulpits.

“There’s a lot of grief and sadness here. There’s no doubt about that,” said the Rev. Bob Miller, pastor at St. Dorothy. “We wanted to tell everyone first. They need to hear it from their pastors. We need to take the heat of the stuff we’re going through and begin to walk through the process with people. … There’s a brand new school emerging out of this. We’re the only new school that’s going to come out of the … closures.”

Some parishioners at St. Dorothy point to school closings going back decades as evidence that the archdiocese is abandoning the inner city. Miller said that’s a popular but inaccurate trope.
In the past six years, he said, his parish has given half a million dollars to the schools. Meanwhile, the archdiocese has kicked in $1 million. Private schools can’t overcome declining enrollment, financial circumstances and shifting demographics, Miller said.

“When emotions start to dominate, those things get forgotten,” he said.

Indeed, families at St. Dorothy shed tears and expressed disappointment about the announcement Wednesday.

“So many companies are merging these days, and workers are losing jobs. In this case children are losing their school home,” said Marsha Campbell as she waited outside St. Dorothy to pick up her grandson Wednesday.

Tony Brewington and Jesse Hardy said they’ve sent generations of children to the school and attended the church for the last 29 years. St. Dorothy created a sense of family that they were unsure another school could emulate, they said.

“I kind of hate it because they’ll have more kids in class, and it will take away from the personal feel here,” Brewington said.

“We have a whole year to acclimate ourselves and marinate on it,” Hardy added. “I think we’ll be OK. It’s just different.”

Tribune reporters Genevieve Bookwalter, Dana Ferguson, Greg Trotter and Meredith Rodriguez contributed.

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