Friday, January 6, 2012

Low Times for Catholic Highs


(Originally published here on 10.10.09)


The Archdiocese of Philadelphia announced the other day that two of its long time iconic high schools, North Catholic and Cardinal Dougherty, would be closing at the end of the current school year.

The reaction from students and their families at the two schools, which were each once the largest Catholic high schools for boys by attendance in the world, as well as from alumni of the two schools, came swift and strong.

Many of the students had dreamed of graduating from North and Dougherty, some of these students as 'legacies' who were the sons and grandsons of alumni. The loss of the schools would break family traditions going back for generations. There would also be issues for the students such as new travel arrangements to new schools and trying to fit in socially in a new environment.

For alumni the issues included the loss of tradition and a perceived elimination of a large slice of their own teenage memories. These former students and graduates had walked the 'hallowed halls' at North and Dougherty, competed for the sports teams, participated in the clubs, attended the religious services, and got their groove on at the dances and proms.

When North Catholic opened in 1926 it enrolled approximately 450 students. By the post-World War II years the school enrollment had swelled to more than 4,000 young men. By 1953 the enrollment was over 4,700 students, and North Catholic was recognized as the largest Catholic high school for boys in the entire world. It was all downhill from there as far as attendance figures.

By the late-1970's with the school celebrating its 50th anniversary, total attendance fell to about 2,700 students, and then dropped below the 2,000 mark by the early 1980's. Though there are now approximately 40,000 alumni of North Catholic high school, the actual 2008 attendance had plummeted to 750 total students.

The story is similar at Cardinal Dougherty which opened in 1956. By the 1960's, Dougherty enrollment had swelled past the 6,000 mark as the school took over the title of largest Catholic boys school in the world. But attendance plunged in the same way it did at North, and by 2008 there were just 784 total students at Dougherty.

When you consider these figures, it is really not that hard to figure out why buildings and facilities that were originally created to hold between 4,000-6,000 students and now hold a little more than 700 each can not continue.

But many students and alumni are placing the blame with other things, including the rise in tuition costs and the cost of legal defense for Catholic priests accused and convicted in the sex abuse scandals. These Catholics are completely missing the real reasons why enrollment has plunged to the point that schools need to be closed.

For the America of the 'Baby Boomer' years, in particular the two decades immediately after World War II, the Catholic Church was a major institution and a concrete part of family life. Families were still together, large, and thriving as well. Divorce was almost unheard of, and a typical Catholic family would have 4-5 children or more. These kids grew up to attend the neighborhood Catholic elementary and high schools as a matter of course.

Tuition in the 1960's was approximately $200-250 per student at most Catholic high schools in Philadelphia. Today those figures have risen into the thousands, in some cases to more than $10,000 per year. But of course, people who earned a salary of $5,000 per year back in the 1960's are now making $50,000 in those same jobs today. Few people ever consider this fact when harping on tuition rises.

The fact of the matter is that costs have soared for most of the same inflationary reasons that salaries have soared over the past five decades. Catholic schools have an additional burden in that they continue to provide the best educational opportunities in teachers, facilities, programs, and overall learning environment. The cost of providing that quality is, however, now spread out over hundreds of students rather than the thousands of students attending in earlier generations.

There is one major reason for all of the problems that have led to not only the anticipated closings of North Catholic and Cardinal Dougherty high schools here in Philadelphia, but also to closings and mergers of other Catholic elementary and high schools in recent years. This one major reason applies to the merger of my own alma mater, St. John Neumann boys high school in South Philly, with St. Marie Goretti girls high school in 2004.

The one major reason is that Catholic families have fallen down on the job.

Catholic families began to have fewer and fewer children, to the point now where most Catholic families have approximately two children rather than the half dozen or more kids that was common a half century ago. Reproductive demographics is only a part of the problem,  just a symptom of the bigger problem that I personally believe is spiritual in nature.

Catholic families have not drifted away from the Church over the decades, they have sprinted away. According to the results of a Gallup Poll released in April of 2009, attendance at Catholic churches has leveled off at approximately 45% after falling slightly below that figure in the immediate aftermath of the priest abuse scandals. In 1955 that figure was a full 75% attendance for weekly Mass services.

The fact was, if you were a Catholic in our grandparents day, you went to Mass on Sunday - it was obligatory. The sad fact today seems to be that people take Mass attendance far too casually. Where in those previous decades the idea of divorce was almost unheard of, today approximately 21% of Catholic Americans have been through a divorce according to religioustolerance.org figures.

The combination of the deterioration of Catholic family size, structure, and practice is at its core a spiritual problem. Many Catholics have become more self-centered, more materialistic, more cynical and more willing to surrender to or flee from the problems posed by evil in the world rather than standing by their faith and fighting back. They have fled to other Christian denominations, or to no religious practice whatsoever, and have taken their smaller families along with them.

It is easy for people who want to assign blame, whether it be in the current struggles of the Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia or in any other area of life, to point at others. There may even be some validity to such accusations. But those same people need to sincerely look themselves in the mirror and ask some hard questions of the person looking back at them.

Do you go to Mass every week, or at least most weeks? Do you make it a priority for you and your family? Do you receive the Sacraments, especially Communion, but also including Confession/Penance? Are you committed to your family, and especially if a young Catholic, are you committed to growing that family in number and raising your children as strong Catholics? Did you, do you, or will you send your children to Catholic schools? Do you find a way to support the Church outwardly and proudly despite the shortcomings of some of its leadership?

If you can look yourself in the mirror and answer all of these questions positively, then congratulations, you are not really a part of the problem. But unfortunately you are also not in the majority of American Catholic families over the past few decades.

The answer to the problems which are now requiring the closings of North Catholic and Cardinal Dougherty, that required the merger of Neumann and Goretti, and that have required the closings and mergers of other Catholic elementary and high schools can be found within ourselves, not in protest or in demonstrations. We the people who make up the body of the Church need to return to our basic fundamentals of faith, prayer, and support for the Catholic Church.

If we are not willing to do that, then more and more Catholic schools will meet the same fate in future years. The official school motto at North Catholic is "Tenui Nec Dimittam" which translates to "What I have, I will not lose" which should be taken on as the new motto of all Catholics in Philadelphia and all across the United States of America.

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