Catholic Schools Scramble to Maintain Enrollment
Allentown Diocese Tries to Buck National Urban, Rural Crisis with Marketing, Fundraising

By Steve Esack
The Morning Call [Pennsylvania]
April 30, 2006

The pastor, principal and business manager looked at Holy Infancy School's small enrollment figures earlier this year and decided to ignore them. For now, anyway.

What mattered more was the morals-based learning of students such as eighth-grade class president Louis Perez. What mattered more were Sister Bonnie Marie Kleinschuster's dedication to classroom technology and the school's new media center. And what mattered more was the history of parochial education at Bethlehem's first Roman Catholic parish.

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So Monsignor Robert J. Biszek, Sister Joyce Valese and business manager Joe McCarthy decided Jan. 31 not to close and not to consolidate their 112-year-old parochial elementary school with three other institutions. Instead, they would try to boost school enrollment at the growing parish that is largely Hispanic and low-income.

"We decided to pull out of the merger and let the Holy Spirit guide us," Biszek said. "Fifteen minutes later, the phone rang and an anonymous donor offered $125,000 if we keep the school open. God can work quickly."

The donation will help, but it's not enough. Holy Infancy's leadership knows it must do more than pray if the 175-student school at Fourth and Adams streets has any hope of bucking the school closing trend the National Catholic Educational Association has labeled a crisis for urban and rural America.

Much is at stake, not only for Holy Infancy but for all Catholic schools in the five counties of the Allentown Diocese, where a higher percentage of students attend Catholic schools compared with the national average. Diocesan enrollment numbers reflect the national downward trend, and the diocese is addressing the problem with a fundraising campaign and a marketing campaign touting school values. The diocese's second synod, which will hold its first plenary session in May, also will look at the number and location of its parishes and schools.

"The Catholic school system is a big part of the church's mission, so we want to keep them vibrant across the diocese," said the Rev. David James, general secretary of the synod. "We'd like all the Catholic schools to be in good shape, physically, academically, financially."

National trend

Nationally, the chief causes for the decades-long cycle of school closings and consolidations are demographics, economics and, among Catholics, lower birth rates between 1968 and 1976, according to a 2005 report by John J. Convey, provost of Catholic University of America and an expert in parochial enrollment. Middle- and higher-income Catholics have moved out of cities and into the suburbs and Sun Belt. The poorer families that remain cannot readily afford Catholic school tuition, which has increased to meet higher relative costs as enrollment has dropped.

While a small number of Catholic schools have opened in fast-developing suburbs and Sun Belt states, Convey said, the national pace of urban and rural closures has accelerated in major dioceses since 2000, the last time enrollments increased. An underlying cause could be the simmering priest scandals because "Catholic schools may be considered as collateral in lawsuits brought by victims of sexual abuse," he reported.

Convey's analysis is shared by Biszek, who was ordained in 1965.

"People are moving into the suburbs, and people in the Northeast are moving to the Sun Belt," he said. "I don't even know if I should say this, but I don't know how the scandals involving priests contribute.?Perhaps material values, consumerism, is a stronger call than providing a Catholic education for some of the parents because of the costs."

The adult Catholic population has grown from about 46 million in 1990 to about 51 million in 2001, about half of the growth rate for all adults in the nation, according to a 2006 Census publication.

Meanwhile, the number of parochial pupils and the number of Catholic schools dipped to a 75-year low in 2005, according to the National Catholic Educational Association in Washington, D.C.

Changing factors

In the 1960s — the height of parochial school enrollment — 5.3 million students were in 12,893 schools that overwhelmingly were staffed by religious orders. Last year, 2.4 million pupils went to 7,799 institutions, which now have mostly lay teachers who have higher salaries and, with families, more-costly health care benefits than the religious orders they have replaced over the years. With fewer students, there is less tuition money to foot the bill.

The national picture has gotten worse, according to Brian Gray, an association spokesman who serves as editor of the nonprofit's magazine, Momentum.

In coming days, the association will release its first national survey looking at the state of Catholic education in the 21st century. Gray declined to elaborate on the study's findings, but said it includes fresher but smaller enrollment numbers, various funding systems and Catholics' attitudes toward religious education.

The study will be explored at the association's annual conference, "Endangered Species: Urban and Rural Catholic Schools," June 22-24 at Boston College.

"The conference coming up in June has an extremely timely theme," Gray said, "because schools are struggling, particularly schools in the Rust Belt."

The Allentown Diocese is trying to scrape off its rust.

The diocese has nine high schools and 53 elementary schools in Lehigh, Northampton, Carbon, Berks and Schuylkill counties. Enrollment has dropped 4 percent this school year.

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"The 4 percent we've seen across the diocese is more so at the elementary level than the secondary," said Philip J. Fromuth, the diocesan superintendent of Catholic education. "High school enrollment has held fairly consistent."

The result is that 30 of the elementary schools have fewer than 200 students in preschool or kindergarten through eighth grade, according to diocesan enrollment figures. Two of the three high schools in Schuylkill County have fewer than 250 students.

"Once you get under 200 kids in a school, you don't have enough kids, and you certainly don't have enough tuition," Convey said. "A healthy enrollment is 250 or higher."

Six elementary schools in the Allentown Diocese have lost the enrollment battle and will close as individual schools in June and consolidate as two schools in the fall.

In the Bethlehem area, Ss. Cyril and Methodius School, Ss. Simon and Jude and Holy Child will merge to form Seton Academy. (Holy Infancy would have been the fourth school in the merger.) In Schuylkill County, Immaculate Heart Elementary School in Girardville, Father Walter J. Ciszek Elementary School in Shenandoah and Holy Family School in Frackville will become one school too.

"Economics affects all," Fromuth said.

Searching for answers

Like the association, the diocese is attempting to find out why enrollments are slipping and what can be done to ensure Catholic schools survive.

In 2003, Allentown Bishop Edward P. Cullen launched a fundraising drive, "Strengthening Our Future in Faith." The campaign has received $53 million in pledges, 25 percent of which is directed to the high schools and another 25 percent to parishes to help pay for schools.

Holy Infancy has already benefited.

A donation from Mark Lieberman, a hall-of-fame wrestler at Lehigh University, has allowed Holy Infancy to build the Helen Chro Media Center, named after a late Holy Infancy parishioner who ran a South Side luncheonette, Al's Lunch, that Lieberman frequented as a student in the 1970s.

"Big public school environments try very hard, but they're dealing with a mass quantity of kids" and they lose track of them easily, said Lieberman, of Salisbury Township. He declined to say how much the media center's 25 new Dell computers cost him and his wife, Debbie. "Debbie and I believe in the Catholic education of forming morals, and to a certain degree public schools can't do that because no one can stand for something anymore without being accused of something."

The Allentown Diocese recently started another round of television advertisements in an attempt to visually explain what the Liebermans find so important.

"We believe we have a great product, but we have to continue to market it," Fromuth said. "In a society that yearns for values and morals, but where children are picking it up on TV and the Internet, there is a need for a Catholic setting."

Next month, the diocese's self-examination will get tougher.

The Second Synod of the Diocese of Allentown, a pastoral planning for the diocese's future, will examine its overlapping system of self-funded parishes and elementary schools. Two committees, "Restructuring and Consolidating Parishes" and "Planning the Fiscal Feasibility of Catholic Schools," will then recommend changes to Cullen, said James of the synod.

Regardless of the synod's outcome, the committees will have a difficult time. They will have to fight history.

Schools' beginnings

Catholic schools sprang up during the Industrial Revolution, when Europeans poured across the Atlantic Ocean to work in factories and labor jobs in the Mid-Atlantic, Midwest and New England states.

Seeing the changes taking place in the nation, bishops gathered for the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore on Dec. 7, 1884, to set doctrine and policies. Some of those policies are now hurting the school system.

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The council held that parishes must fund their own schools with "revenues sufficiently stable for the support of the priest, church, and school," according to the Catholic Encyclopedia at The council also ruled "immigrants should be instructed by priests of their own language," Catholic Encyclopedia states.

That principle, although not followed today, resulted in overpopulation of churches and their schools just blocks from each other in places such as south Bethlehem, where eight churches were built around Bethlehem Steel.

Convey of Catholic University said the ethnic parishes served their purpose of uniting populations in a foreign land. But their time has passed.

"There's not as much allegiance to ethnic parishes anymore," Convey said. "Many people who are still part of those parishes are elderly.'

That has been true in south Bethlehem.

Decades ago, Ss. Cyril and Methodius School became the hub for children from ethnic parishes: Ss. Cyril and Methodius, St. Joseph, St. John Capistrano, Our Lady of Pompeii and St. Stanislaus. Holy Child in Fountain Hill was formed in 1982 by the merger of the South Side's St. Ursula and Holy Ghost schools.

Next year, Ss. Cyril and Methodius and Holy Child students will cross the Lehigh River to attend Seton Academy at the site of what is now Ss. Simon and Jude in west Bethlehem. The moves will leave Holy Infancy parish with the only Catholic school on the South Side.

Holy Infancy's survival

Holy Infancy's history, proximity to Lehigh University and dedication to technology has given it a better chance at survival than other schools.

"I'd say if you look at other [Catholic] schools, they might have one or two projectors," said Kleinschuster, Holy Infancy's technology advocate. "What's different about Holy Infancy, we have projectors on the ceiling like in a college, and the technology is integrated into the curriculum. It's important to have an institution like this on the South Side."

Holy Infancy was established in 1861 by Irish immigrants. When the church's cornerstone was laid 23 years later at Fourth and Taylor streets, it was designated as a multinational territorial church that did not limit membership to a geographic boundary or to a particular ethnic group. The Sisters of St. Joseph have been in charge of the school since it was founded in 1894.

Instead of Irish, it is Hispanics who are leading Holy Infancy's growth, both in registrations and in baptisms — two critical areas where Ss. Cyril and Methodius, Holy Child and Ss. Simon and Jude are experiencing decreases.

It now has about 800 registered Hispanic families, 400 Anglo families and 200 Portuguese families. In the last two years, Holy Infancy has baptized 339 babies.

School custodian Jose Melendez, who put three of his children through Holy Infancy, said closing the school would have devastated the Hispanic community. "This is the only school provided for us; it's the poor side of town," he said.

While baptisms are increasing, the parish cannot wait to see if parents will send their children to Holy Infancy's preschool and kindergarten, said McCarthy, the business manager. So Holy Infancy is trying new ways to increase enrollment to get to the critical 200-student level.

The first strategy is putting the onus of staying open on parents, and it's working because more parents are volunteering in the school.

"We enlisted the support of parents to be out there talking and selling Holy Infancy to family, friends and neighbors," McCarthy said. "Parents are the best marketing strategy we have."

With the Liebermans' computer donation fresh in their minds, Holy Infancy leaders have started a new financial campaign, "Guardian Angel Society." The drive, similar to an endowment, is asking community leaders, regardless of religion, to make an annual donation directly to the school — not to the church or diocese — to pay for normal operating costs, such as utilities costs, teacher salaries and health care.

Endowments, which use interest proceeds from donations, have worked for decades at the college level to keep a steady stream of money flowing, Gray said. But too many parochial high schools and elementary schools across the country have been slow in adopting endowments or programs such as Holy Infancy's.

"Elementary schools have been slow to get on the bandwagon," he said. "They are too used to living hand-to-mouth, day-to-day on tuition."

Since November, the Guardian Angel Society has generated annual commitments totaling $32,000.

Valese, principal since 1991, said Holy Infancy needs to keep the parental support and new money flowing for the urban school to survive.

"I'm glad we are staying as we are," Valese said. "But the income stream is critical for our school to stay open; we can't just rely on tuition."

And, she added, a 'Hail Mary' wouldn't hurt either.

Morning Call reporter Tom Coombe contributed to this story. 610-861-3619


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