My old Catholic elementary school has been struggling, and that's not good for anybody.
St. Germaine School in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, will merge with another Catholic school because of declining enrollment at both schools. St. Germaine's enrollment dropped from 172 students just six years ago to 86 this year.
Sister Dale McDonald, Director of Public Policy and Education Research at the National Catholic Educational Association, told me that declining enrollment is a national trend. Though there is some growth in the South and the West, Catholic schools are shutting down at the rate of more than 100 per year.
Why? Catholic families are having fewer children. Costs have gone up — health care, teacher salaries, liability insurance — driving tuitions up. And Catholic families aren't as attached to their parishes as families were when I was a kid.
Lucky for me, I came out of a rich Catholic tradition that was set in motion by millions of European immigrants who immigrated to America 100 years before I was born. They paved the way for me to enjoy a terrific experience at good old St. Germaine.
I entered the school in the first grade. I knew right away things were going to be different from the public school where I attended kindergarten. The sisters were clearly in charge of St. Germaine. The place was so orderly and clean you could eat off the floor.
The school was packed with kids. The church was built to service our growing suburban community. Many of the families that lived in our neighborhood moved there to be near the church and the school. Our parents were determined that we receive a good education and be taught solid values.
And, boy, did the sisters deliver.
Every day they taught us to embrace the virtues: prudence, temperance and courage. They demanded we fend off the seven deadly sins: pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed and sloth. They made us sit up straight and keep our shirts tucked in.
When they weren't pounding values into us, they worked us hard in math, science, reading and writing. Unlike many of today's public school teachers, the sisters didn't dwell on boosting our self-esteem; that was something we had to earn by producing results.
I didn't know it then, but the sisters gave us the gift of clarity. They portrayed the world as it really is — a battle between good and evil. Every moment of every day, we are moving toward one and away from the other. The sisters were determined to give us the fortitude we would need to make the right decisions and move in the right direction.
My years at St. Germaine were eventful. The lead-ups to Christmas and Easter were always giant affairs — the ceremonies, the planning, the excitement.
The sacraments of Holy Communion and Confirmation were huge deals that involved a special Mass and a family gathering — a giant celebration that confirmed something important had occurred.
The sacrament of Confession was a big one, too. Confession is where you examine your conscience and soul and admit, out loud in front of another human being, exactly what you did wrong. I always tried to disguise my voice so that Father Kram wouldn't know who I was, and just when I'd think I got away with my disguise, he'd say, "God bless you, Tommy. Your penance will be three Hail Marys, three Our Fathers and…"
There were many times when my elementary school experience was unpleasant. The sisters demanded a lot from us, and I often failed to live up to their standards. But the fact is the values and lessons they hammered into me as a kid are in me still — they guide me still.
As the world gets more confused every day — as we lose our grasp of right and wrong and some people debate whether such concepts even exist — we need more kids to have the elementary school experience I had.
Like I said, it's not good for anybody that so many Catholic schools are struggling.