Monica Yant Kinney: A crisis for parents and church

"We're trying to save as much as we can," Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput said. "That means making hard decisions we know will hurt feelings."
"We're trying to save as much as we can," Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput said. "That means making hard decisions we know will hurt feelings." (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 08, 2012

Some prayers aren't answered. And some are ignored and thrown back in your face, making you rethink begging in the first place.

Local Catholics gobsmacked by Friday's school-closing news may feel like fools for banking their kids' futures on faith long after friends fled religious education. Now, thousands of parents who sacrificed to follow tradition have been ordered to fall out of love with their small, special schools and bus youngsters somewhere unfamiliar.

Don't cry. It won't help. Forty-five archdiocesan elementaries and four high schools must be merged or mothballed. More than 20,000 students will be affected and 1,700 teachers will be sent packing.

If you think that's bad, wait until next year: Up to 50 parishes could be shuttered.

Few of the devoted can dispute the need to shore up the archdiocese's crumbling educational empire. Schools with 150 students aren't merely inefficient; they often lack resources to justify the tuition.

But rightsizing never feels more wrong than when your child gets shoved to the sidewalk. Laura McCarthy pays $12,000 a year in taxes to live in Abington Township and $5,000 more to send two kids to Immaculate Conception, a beloved Jenkintown K-8 slated for merger.

Consolidations make sense, but after working on parish finances, McCarthy wonders whether even a regional model can survive Catholics' refusal to give as their parents did.

"The real problem," she says, "is that supporting the church is the last thing on people's list today. It's behind taking their kids to Disney and furnishing their houses."

In 2001, 103,000 children in the city and suburbs attended archdiocesan schools. Today, just 68,000 do.

Barely a third of Catholics in the area go to Mass. Whether out of fury over the sex scandal or as a modern response to old-world interaction, many Catholics don't even succumb to guilt anymore.

American church leaders could acknowledge such defiance by pushing Rome for more transparency and bold, institutional change to lure back the masses. Instead, bishops convene more commissions, lock more doors, and pray they hold on to the few folks left in the pews.

School and parish closings are intended to stabilize. But what if they have the opposite effect and drive away those who fought to stay?

What if the decisions render the church a slumlord stuck with vacant eyesores? How can any saving from killing the heat in a cavernous church exceed the cost of creating all that bad blood?

And what if firing teachers and boarding up classrooms lead Catholics to enroll their kids in public school? Tuition tops parents' concerns, but the archdiocese can't guarantee prices won't rise at these new regional schools.

Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput learned quickly that Catholics here identify with their alma maters above all else. "When people introduce themselves to me, they say, 'I went to such-and-such school.' "

But in March, history will vanish as regional schools adopt new names. What, I ask Chaput, will he tell parents to keep them from giving up and going secular?

"We're trying to save as much as we can," he says, simply. "That means making hard decisions we know will hurt feelings. We can't let that knowledge keep us from doing the right thing."

Information is everything

If only Chaput's flock knew as much about the archdiocese as he does about them.

The total value of the archdiocese's investments, antiquities, and real estate remains a mystery as enduring as faith. Money matters when dollars drive decisions.

Last year, the Heritage of Faith - Vision of Hope campaign reported raising a record $220 million through 52,000 gifts. Of that, $50 million was to go to education.

But talks with Catholics around the region suggest many of the promised checks won't be sent. Blame the economy, disgust, or distrust.

Bernie Gutkowski led the fund-raising at Sacred Heart in Swedesburg, but the Montgomery County funeral-home owner rescinded his $10,000 commitment in the spring when his pastor was plucked from the parish and put on administrative leave.

"I've had it with the people downtown," Gutkowski tells me. "All they do is ask for money. And when you ask for explanations, they don't give you any answer.

"Now they're closing schools. Next year, they're going to close parishes. And they still won't tell us about our priest," Gutkowski gripes. "What's being hidden? Why are they still so secretive?"

In Jenkintown, McCarthy fears for the future in every parish losing a school.

Without having to subsidize the schooling, she notes, Immaculate Conception parish would be flush. But those who do dig deep give out of love for the education they cherished.

"How many people are going to stay and continue to contribute each week after they close the school?"


Contact columnist Monica Yant Kinney at 215-854-4670, myant@phillynews.com, or @myantkinney on Twitter. Read her blog at philly.com/blinq.

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