Reconfiguring Catholic Education

On January 23, 2009, Bishop Timothy A. McDonnell of Springfield, MA announced that as of September 2009 all five of the parish Catholic elementary schools in Springfield will be closed. A new diocesan school, St. Michael’s Academy, will take their place, making use of three facilities already in existence. Pre-K will be in one location, K-5 in another, and 6-8 will be a separate entity within the local Catholic high school. This is a bold move, albeit a necessary one. Faced with the double-edged sword of dwindling enrollment and increased costs, none of the five parishes could support the schools any longer. Without action, the future was one in which Springfield may very well have had no Catholic elementary schools, possibly in as little as five years. Rather than let the schools die out one by one, the decision was made to reconfigure Catholic education in this area. The hope is that with fewer buildings to maintain and all parishes (even those that do not currently have a school) supporting the academy, tuition can be kept at a reasonable level that parents can afford and enrichment programs will be able to be offered. Springfield is not alone in taking this step. In Massachusetts alone, Dorchester and Mattapan have already gone this route, creating a regional Catholic school.

My parish is one of those that will be closing its school, a school celebrating 100 years of Catholic education this year. Our parish actually built and opened the school before it built a church. Mass was held in a chapel attached to the front of the school building until a more suitable building could be constructed. The mood was somber at mass Sunday morning as our pastor explained the decision. Many in the congregation were alumni and current students. In addition, the school principal and several of the teachers (teachers who have no guarantee of a job next year) were there as well, commemorating the start of Catholic Schools Week. As the pastor pointed out, this decision is indeed bittersweet. Over the past century, this school has educated literally tens of thousands of students, many of whom have gone on to play very prominent roles in our community, each of whose life was touched in some way by the teachers, administrators, and fellow learners who made up the educational community. In the baby boom years of the 1950s when there was no tuition and the Sisters of St. Joseph taught all the classes, there were nearly 1000 students enrolled. While the numbers of students have diminished over the years, the quality of the education was maintained. 

This week is Catholic Schools Week, the theme of which is Celebrate Service. It is indeed a time to celebrate the service of the many teachers, administrators, and volunteers, both religious and lay, who have given so much to Catholic schools. We extend a hearty “thank you” for all these dedicated individuals have done. There is so very much to be proud of. There is sadness in closing this chapter of Catholic education in our city.

By the same token, there is excitement in the future. The children are looking forward to a new beginning and meeting new people. There is the sense that together it will be possible to do things that the individual schools simply could not do on their own. The pastors and financial committees are breathing a collective sigh of relief that maybe, just maybe, the parishes will be able to pay their bills. The face of Catholic education is changing, and it is necessary for the system to change with it. The parish school system, which worked so well for so many years, simply wasn’t working any more. This is an opportunity to keep Catholic education viable in our city for the generations to come. It will hopefully prove to be very successful, and perhaps serve as a model for other cities that are struggling to maintain a viable Catholic educational system.

Patrice Fagnant-MacArthur

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Patrice Fagnant-MacArthur writes from western Massachusetts where she lives with her husband and two sons. A Senior Editor with Catholic Lane.com, she blogs at http://spiritualwomanthoughts.blogspot.com

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  • RoodAwakening

    The very first school I ever attended, at Our Lady of the Assumption Parish (L’Eglise d’Assumption) in Chicopee, MA–the church of my Baptism–closed long ago. I used to walk past Our Lady of the Elms College every day on my way to and from there.

    The parish where I now live (and work), St. Thomas Aquinas, in Rio Rancho, NM, OPENED a new school nearly ten years ago, and has had a waiting list of students from Day One. Our parish, the largest in the state, is a growing one. However, our archdiocese, Santa Fe, has also begun to develop regional Catholic schools in other communities.

    What’s the difference? To some degree, it’s shifting demographics, of course. But sound Catholic teaching is also a major factor. (Not all of our archdiocese’s schools have a similar waiting list.) A major overhaul is certainly needed in many cases, in both parishes and schools…and not simply one of facilities. Adults, first, must be thoroughly evangelized, beginning from the pulpit, encouraged in personal conversion to Christ, and then catechized with sound doctrine on an ongoing basis, also beginning from the pulpit. Then, THOSE adults must do the same for the children and youth, including ensuring authentic Catholic teaching is presented in both parish and school.

    It is not a quick, nor easy, transformation, and the cost can be high (not just the financial department)–but very, very necessary for the health of God’s people.

  • pfmacarthur

    Dear RoodAwakening,

    You may be happy to know that the Assumption School Building was converted and built onto and is now the beautiful new home of Holyoke Catholic High School. Thank you for your comments.

    Patrice Fagnant-MacArthur

  • RoodAwakening

    Dear Patrice,

    Actually, I had learned via the Internet that Assumption School had been retrofitted as a Catholic high school affiliated with Elms College. And, yes, I am happy about it! :D Does the parish still exist, too? I had occasion to call the secretary there a few years back, and she was uncertain about its pending fate, at that time.

    Another former Assumption student works at Risen Savior Parish in Albuquerque, NM. I guess we get around….

    God bless,

    Jeannette

  • pfmacarthur

    Hi Jeannette,

    Yes, Assumption parish is still alive and well!

    Best wishes,
    Patrice

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