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Future of the Faith, Part Four

This article is more than 11 years old.

On his first visit to the United States, Pope Benedict XVI says he intends to "to reach out spiritually to all Catholics." The American church itself is trying to reach out practically as well...through charity work, health care, and education. It's that last area that's currently under threat in Massachusetts.

In the final part of our series, "The Future of the Faith," we look at the state of Catholic education. Declining enrollment and financial problems have forced the Archdiocese of Boston to rethink how it manages its schools. WBUR's Monica Brady-Myerov reports.

Audio for this story will be available on WBUR's web site later today.

TEXT OF STORY:

SOUND OF CLASS

TEACHER, EVELYN GRAY: What says "f?"

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: Except for the crucifixes that adorn the hallways and most classrooms, it would be hard to tell Trinity Catholic Academy in Brockton apart from a public elementary school.

GRAY: POST HERE: what says "e?"

BRADY-MYEROV: There are no nuns teaching here. Kindergarteners are learning to read from veteran teacher Evelyn Gray who took the job after retiring from the Brockton public schools. Trinity Catholic Academy is the Archdiocese's first attempt at remaking Catholic schools under the so called 2010 Initiative.

The strategy, launched three years ago, takes a regional approach by closing financially distressed schools and consolidating their resources. Vicar General of the Archdiocese, Father Richard Erikson says the goal is to improve, strengthen and revitalize Catholic schools.

FATHER RICHARD ERIKSON: We see Catholic education as critical not only to our life as Catholics but we see Catholic education continuing to play a great role in our society.

BRADY-MYEROV: The 2010 Initiative changes the parochial school management model from oversight by the parish priest and the Archdiocese to seasoned educators, such as former deputy superintendent of Brockton public schools Anthony Luizzi. As the new regional director for Trinity, he says the priests in Brockton were happy to turn over the responsibility.

ANTHONY LUIZZI: If this change movement did not occur these schools would have eventually fallen off the vine, they were withering as many Catholic schools are because they can't keep up the finances.

CLASSROOM SOUNDS

BRADY-MYEROV: At first the change scared some parents and teachers. Second Grade teacher Ann Griffin had taught in the Catholic school for 25 years.

ANN GRIFFIN: I was a nervous wreck because for 20 years. We were like a small family and then all of a sudden all new people we weren't sure going to have a job, but it worked out wonderful.

BRADY-MYEROV: The school has computers in every class room. And at a time when public schools are so strapped they are cutting some sports and music, Trinity has both and offers a gifted and talented program.

PAULINE LABOULIERE: We have things we never had before.

BRADY-MYEROV: Pauline Labouliere is one of the school principals.

PAULINE LABOULIERE: We have an art room, music room, brand new text, state of the equipment in all areas. The curriculum has been totally revised and the academic bar has been raised.

BRADY-MYEROV: The school still serves the same population. They are majority low income kids. 80% of them are Catholic. And the school's enrollment is growing. The 2010 Initiative is focused on urban schools. The Archdiocese is working now to merge 7 schools in Dorchester into one regional school on five campuses and it has plans for new schools in South Boston and Cape Ann.

The Initiative does not plan on building new schools in the suburbs, where the Catholic population has migrated and there's an unmet demand. That's because the leaders of the 2010 Initiative such as former advertising executive Jack Connors say the church has a duty to be involved in underprivileged communities.

JACK CONNORS: If it were a business someone could argue that it's time to stick a fork in it, it's done. But the reality is it's not a business, it's the future of our faith.

BRADY-MYEROV: But the 2010 Initiative won't save all faltering schools. In the past 4 years, 15 mostly elementary schools in urban settings have been closed. Most recently the archdiocese announced it's shutting down St. Mary's Star of the Sea in East Boston.

SCHOOL BELL SOUNDS

BRADY-MYEROV: Outside St. Mary's Leanne Sherman, who just dropped off her twins in the 4th grade, says she feels abandoned.

LEANNE SHERMAN: As far as I'm concerned they are pouring money into certain communities and they are tearing money out of other communities. We feel like we've been left behind that they decided that this store was closing and that was it.

BRADY-MYEROV: Sherman says until the closure announcement she thought they were involved in the 2010 Initiative when it first began in 2005.

SHERMAN: This school was represented at the 2010 Initiative at that point we were still a viable option because we were still scheduled to stay open.

BRADY-MYEROV: The archdiocese says it can't keep the school open because it has declining enrollment, a large financial deficit and low registration.

Over the past 50 years there's been a dramatic demise in Catholic education nationally. In 1965 in the Boston area there were 250 K-8 Catholic schools run by parishes. Today there are 99. The last time the Archdiocese built a school was in 1953.

What's making this regionalization successful, is the funding behind it. Jack Connors of the 2010 Initiative says schools can no longer count on support from parish donations or the Archdiocese.

JACK CONNORS: Before we came along fundraising for Catholic schools with the very impressive exception of Peter Lynch Foundation the Catholic Schools foundation, the only fundraising there was for Catholic schools was car wash, a candy sale, a bingo game or a raffle they just don't work.

BRADY-MYEROV: The Initiative uses professional fundraisers to approach wealthy Catholics for large donations. It raised $11 million to rehab the schools in Brockton and is now raising $68 million for the Dorchester plan. By comparison, this year's fundraising goal for the operating budget of the Archdiocese is $15 million.

The Catholic commitment to education began in the 19th century when leaders believed schools were critical to the mission of the church by educating young Catholics. The same is true today, says Father Joseph O'Keefe, Dean of Boston College's Lynch School of Education.

FATHER JOSEPH O'KEEFE: It is the most effective way of passing on a tradition of faith to the next generation. If the church just followed the population out of the inner city where is the mission with solidarity with the poor to do the work of the Beatitudes to do the work of the gospel.

BRADY-MYEROV: The Archdiocese says it's committed to that mission no matter how difficult its finances. Again, Vicar General Richard Erikson.

RICHARD ERIKSON: The fact that we have invested so much time, energy personnel and resources to enhancing Catholic education is an indication of the priority of Catholic education.

BRADY-MYEROV: The Initiative has inspired many lay Catholics to volunteer their time to try and save urban schools. Matt George, the retired superintendent of Brockton schools and now chairs the board of trustees at Trinity.

MATT GEORGE: You're talking about what our faith is all about. You're teaching about Jesus Christ and you're teaching things in religious education that is prohibited in a public school setting.

BRADY-MYEROV: George says students learn to become good citizens and good Catholics. They do this through daily religious education lessons such as in this one in an 8th grade class.

STUDENTS RECITE PRAYER: Lord be merciful, Lord save your people from all evil, Lord save your people, from every sin...

BRADY-MYEROV: Religious Education is the one area still controlled by the Archdiocese. Some question whether these schools can retain their Catholic identity without nuns teaching and priests as principals.

But the Archdiocese has had to adapt its mission in other areas. Caritas Christi has struggled with how to maintain a Catholic mission in a competitive health care marketplace where some medical techniques challenge church doctrine.

And the Archdiocese has abandoned its mission in adoptions through Catholic Charities because the state allows gay parents to adopt. By attempting to revive Catholic Schools, the Archdiocese stays true to its mission of spreading the faith to the next generation.

For WBUR I'm Monica Brady-Myerov.

This program aired on April 17, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.

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