Philadelphia Archdiocese considers creating "mission schools"

Rajene Warren (left) and Saana Parker at St. Malachy School in North Philadelphia, a pioneering self-sustaining school for low-income students for nearly 30 years that is slated to close.
Rajene Warren (left) and Saana Parker at St. Malachy School in North Philadelphia, a pioneering self-sustaining school for low-income students for nearly 30 years that is slated to close. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 16, 2012

The commission that called for closing scores of Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia also created a new category called "mission schools" it said would ensure Catholic education survives in poor inner-city neighborhoods.

Saying there was no way tuition alone could sustain such schools, the commission came up with a concept for these mission schools that will explore strategies for alternative funding from corporations, private donors, and foundations. The commission designated eight schools scattered across Philadelphia neighborhoods for the initial group.

Although there are no "mission schools" in the area now, the archdiocese said some could be modeled after two similar programs in North Philadelphia and Chester.

Officials from the nonprofit Business Leadership Organized for Catholic Schools (BLOCS), which has been working closely with a small group of urban schools, applauded the mission concept. They said they look forward to working closely with those schools and joining with foundations to help sustain all remaining Catholic schools.

"We've had a special focus on urban, inner-city schools," Joe Garecht, executive director of BLOCS, said in a recent interview. "So the thing I'm most heartened about this is the archdiocese has made a commitment to mission schools, schools that otherwise would not be able to stay open."

BLOCS chairman Michael G. O'Neill agreed. But he was among many Catholic school supporters who were stunned that the commission had called for closing the North Philadelphia parish school that had been a pioneering self-sustaining school for low-income students for nearly 30 years - St. Malachy.

"I was personally surprised," said O'Neill, a businessman whose family has been involved in supporting the school in the 1400 block of North 11th Street for 25 years.

He said he had not talked to the archdiocese about why the commission recommended closing St. Malachy. He said his only suspicion was that because the school is so small - 208 students - realizing economies of scale was difficult.

The commission, which announced its findings with Archbishop Charles J. Chaput on Jan. 6, recommended that St. Malachy close in June and consolidate with Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the 300 block of East Lehigh Avenue, 2.6 miles away in Kensington.

The new regional school would become a mission school.

Unlike many of the 48 other schools targeted to close, St. Malachy does not have a half-filled building. Its building has room for only 230 students.

And the school has no deficit. In fact, archdiocese data show the school had a current surplus of $92,836.

With money collected from donors in the city and suburbs, the Irish American community, foundations, and annual fund-raisers, St. Malachy has been self-sustaining for more than three decades.

"We were surprised we were on the list," said Dan Pickens, chairman of the Friends of St. Malachy, which helps support the school, where 89 percent of students are not Catholic.

The Rev. John McNamee, pastor emeritus, credited with working to make sure St. Malachy's parish and school were self-sustaining, declined to comment. He said he had decided to "stay out of the fray" because he retired as pastor after 26 years in 2008.

The commission's recommendations outline three optimal enrollment models for elementary schools: 250-plus, 500-plus, and 700-plus. Enrollment was below 200 in 34 of the schools targeted for closing.

Mary E. Rochford, superintendent of archdiocesan schools, praised St. Malachy.

"They do great work, and their board is wonderful," Rochford said.

But she said the small school lacked some programs the archdiocese believes should be available at elementary schools, including foreign languages, physical education, music, and technology. She said paying teachers' salaries for those subjects would wipe out the school's surplus.

Pickens said St. Malachy would appeal its closing.

"Right now, we're hard at work crafting an appeal," he said, "and we're cautiously optimistic we have good grounds."

Rochford said a panel of archdiocesan administrators and commission members conducted its first appeal session Thursday.

The archdiocese would not say how many appeals had been filed.

At the meeting announcing the closings, commission member H. Edward Hanway discussed mission schools.

"The commission has endorsed the concept of mission schools to serve the particular needs of certain urban and disadvantaged communities where a traditional diocesan school could not be sustained wholly through parish funds and tuition," he said.

"There are several examples of these schools today: St. Martin de Porres here in Philadelphia and Drexel-Neumann Academy in Chester, where organizations like BLOCS and the archdiocese and other institutions have come together and partnered to establish and sustain schools in particularly challenged areas."

Such schools should be replicated, he said.

Rochford said the archdiocese planned to provide more details about the mission concept at a meeting with the designated schools soon.

More schools may be added to the roster in a few years.

In addition to the proposed regional school resulting from the merger of St. Malachy and Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the other mission schools would be: the new regional school created by merging Incarnation of Our Lord and St. Helena, Olney; the new regional school created by the merger of Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament and St. Donato, West Philadelphia; new regional school from the merger of St. Gabriel and St. Thomas Aquinas, Point Breeze; and Our Mother of Sorrows/St. Ignatius, West Philadelphia; St. Rose of Lima, West Philadelphia; Mary, Mother of Peace, Southwest Philadelphia; and St. Martin of Tours, Summerdale.

Sister Stephen Frances Meyer, principal of St. Martin of Tours, said she had no idea her diverse school with 458 students might be named a mission school.

"We were very surprised and very happy," she said. "The archdiocese is going to help ensure that our school survives."

She said about 35 percent of her students were Hispanic, 30 percent African American, and the rest Caucasian.

"It's a very diverse population," Meyer said. "We celebrate that diversity."

Situated in a part of the city that has attracted immigrant families, the school has pupils from 67 nations. Many are low-income students who receive financial aid through BLOCS, the Children's Scholarship Fund Philadelphia, and others.

Parents and alumni of St. Martin of Tours are active in fund-raising. The school also has received help from several foundations. The Connelly Foundation in West Conshohocken has provided money for technology and recently funded a dance class.

Rochford said some of the mission schools could wind up following the model of St. Martin de Porres in North Philadelphia, which became independent in 2010. The school receives some help from the archdiocese but is run by an independent board.

It also is among the schools that BLOCS has been working with as part of its urban school initiative, which seeks to establish individual school endowments.

Sister Mary Fitzgerald, the school's principal, said that since the closings were announced, several schools had called her to find out how her school became independent.

Though her board is interested in expanding the model to include other schools, it has decided to move cautiously.

"We will work with the schools later on," she said.

St. Martin de Porres, she said, was relieved that its board had worked hard to make the school independent.

"I thank God every day that this group of people had the foresight and the creativity to make us independent so we can concentrate on programs and activities and plans for the future," she said. "We are in a good position. We are grateful."


To view a video on the Catholic school closing announcement, go to www.philly.com/guitars


Contact staff writer Martha Woodall at 215-854-2789 or martha.woodall@phillynews.com.

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