A few women dabbed tears from their eyes, but there were no gasps of surprise. Most parishioners knew, only too well, that for the last three years the church had been trying to find a way to keep the financially strapped school open.
Not far from the church, located at 28th and Diamond Streets, the Rev. Charles P. Vance gave the same bad news to parishioners at Our Lady of the Holy Souls at 19th and Tioga Streets. Their school, too, will close its doors in June.
They join several other parish schools that have closed in Philadelphia since 1980, about half of them predominantly black, inner-city schools that had struggled to stay afloat.
Archdiocesan officials could not be reached yesterday for comment.
Despite the closings, Philadelphia has been more successful than most urban dioceses in keeping inner-city parish schools open, officials from the National Catholic Education Association in Washington said recently.
Declining enrollments, mounting deficits and the expense of hiring lay teachers to replace the schools' nuns, who are scheduled to depart at the end of this school year, had prompted the pastors at Most Precious Blood and Holy Souls to seek permission to close their school doors in June.
Cardinal Krol recently authorized the closings after reviewing letters from the pastors and studies prepared by Msgr. David E. Walls, vicar for Catholic education for the archdiocese.
"It is understandable that the declining enrollment and the increasing costs of operating the school necessitate your taking this difficult step," Cardinal Krol wrote to Father Eschbach in a Jan. 6 letter.
While both parishes are active and growing, the pastors said, the schools were squeezing their limited resources to the point that the churches' future could be imperiled.
Father Eschbach, who has been the pastor of Most Precious Blood for the last nine years, called the decision to ask church officials to close the school "the most difficult decision of my life."
In an interview, Father Vance said he was troubled as well.
"It is never easy to see a school close," he said. "They have been an integral part of parish structures for many years, but that is changing."
He said that many parishes, such as these two in North Philadelphia, would continue to be viable and serve their communities, but that they would do so without schools.
Most Precious Blood has an enrollment of 200 students in first through eighth grades; 35 of them are parishioners. A few years ago, Our Lady of the Holy Souls had an enrollment of 240. A total of 176 children are attending the school this year, and only 30 of them are parishioners.
Church officials pledged to help those families who want to enroll their children in the five remaining nearby Catholic schools in the fall. They expect most of the non-Catholic students to transfer to public schools.
"I think our closings will actually strengthen Catholic education in the other schools because we have seven schools in a small area competing for the same students," Father Eschbach said in an interview in which he and Father
Vance discussed their schools' demise.
At Most Precious Blood, Father Eschbach, the parish council and the parish finance committee and other church officials had been wrestling with the school's precarious financial situation for the last three years.
Father Eschbach said that his school had become trapped by "a kind of spiraling reality." As the enrollment dropped, the school was forced to increase tuition to meet expenses, which caused enrollment to decline further.
In the end, he said, the arithmetic was overwhelming.
For example, this school year, officials at Most Precious Blood had hoped that increasing the annual tuition, from $575 to $650, would enable the school to be self-sufficient.
But when school opened in September, officials were shocked to find that enrollment had dropped, from 264 to 200. Most of the departing families said they could not afford to pay the higher tuition. Last month, the school was forced to seek an emergency $50,000 grant from the Commission for Interparochial Cooperation to help cover a projected $75,000 deficit.
Next year's financial projections were even more grim. To make up for the enrollment drop, parish officials concluded that they would have to raise tuition to $850, and they were not sure how many more students would be forced to leave.
"You raise tuition, you chase people away," Don Baker, chairman of the parish finance committee, observed yesterday.
In addition, officials in both parishes had to consider the impact of the loss of their teaching nuns. Religious orders are retrenching because fewer women are choosing religious vocations.
The Sisters of St. Joseph previously had announced that the principal and two sisters assigned to Most Precious Blood would be leaving at the end of this school year.
Faced with the prospect of paying higher salaries for an all-lay staff, parish officials at the school concluded that even if the tuition were increased by $200 next year, the school would still have a $100,000 deficit.
Father Vance said that Our Lady of the Holy Souls also would lose its three Sisters of St. Joseph when the school year ends. The parish is already receiving $100,000 a year in aid from the Commission on Interparochial Cooperation, and he said the school would have plunged even more deeply into debt next year.
In all, the archdiocese spends $2.1 million annually to subsidize the inner-city parishes, Father Vance said.
He and Father Eschbach had hoped that a plan to consolidate six black parish schools into three sites in North Philadelphia would have preserved the schools.
Under the proposal, administrative and operating costs would have been slashed, and the schools would have been overseen by an administrative board with input from the six parishes.
But, Father Eschbach said, the priests council for the five-county archdiocese, the archdiocesan finance committee and others objected to the plan because it would have cost an estimated $1.75 million to upgrade the three schools that were large enough to accommodate the students.
Cardinal Krol turned down the plan about a year ago.
"It was not perceived as cost effective," Father Eschbach said. "Each individual parish had to look at its own particular situation."
And for Most Precious Blood of Our Lord and Our Lady of the Holy Souls there was no way out.
After announcing the school's closing yesterday, Father Eschbach asked Anna Brown, the choir director, for some music while the congregation paused to reflect.
She led the red-robed choir through a stirring medley of spirituals.
"Nobody told me that the road would be easy," they sang as they gently swayed in time. "But I don't believe that He brought me this far to leave me."