Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Collateral Damage, Part 1 – An Overview

[Note: All use of boldface typeface within quotations cited in this post is my own emphasis.]

GSS over at The Sad Saga alerts us to a story that aired yesterday on Channel 13. A portion of the story involved an interview with Fr. Richard Brickler, the pastor of St. Boniface Parish, and touched on his expectations for his parish in light of the fact that St. Boniface School will be closing next month. Channel 13's Patrice Walsh reports,

With the closing comes the concern that parishioners could also leave the church , but Father Brickler says members of his congregation are faithful and generous. 'Whenever we present the needs that we have, they just seem to come through.'"

Fr. Brickler certainly knows his parishioners better than I and his optimism may be well-founded. St. Boniface Parish may suffer no ill effects from the closing of its school but, if that's the case, it would make it a member of a very small minority.

Googling for Data

Off and on for the last few weeks I've been surfing the Internet, looking for information on the importance of Catholic schools, both to their parishes and to their wider communities. I have also been looking for information on the effects which school closures might have on those parishes and communities.

There are many stories out there touching in one way or another on the relationship between Catholic schools and their parishes. Statisticians call such information anecdotal. While potentially quite interesting in themselves, such stories are not of much use in determining such things as cause and effect and in analyzing trends.

With all the research on Catholic schools available these days I thought it a pretty sure thing that by now someone would have looked at the effects of Catholic school closures in an organized way. But after two weeks of working Google and other search engines every way I knew I was still coming up empty-handed. At that point I contacted Fr. Andrew Greeley, a sociologist and researcher who has been looking at Catholic education for decades. Fr. Greeley replied that he was unaware of any formal studies and that the only data of which he was aware was anecdotal.

Fr. Greeley and every other reputable statistician will all say that anecdotal data doesn't count and in a rigorous sense that's very true. However, when every report that can be found points in one direction and one direction only, I am convinced that some valid general conclusions can be reached, even if we cannot assign exact percentages to the results.

The Catholic school and the community

One of the earliest conclusions to emerge from all of this was that the mere presence of a Catholic school in a community very often promotes strong bonds among members - Catholic or otherwise - of that community.

For instance, Maurice Timothy Reidy, an Associate Editor at Commonweal, wrote in a 2004 article,

“[The Catholic school is] uniquely suited to creating community bonds. ... [T]he lives of all parents, Catholic or not, revolve around their children and the activities they participate in. The church capitalize[s] on that, using the school to bolster the larger parish community.”

Fr. Greeley agrees,

[Neighborhood parishes] actuate what University of Chicago sociologist James S. Coleman calls 'social capital,' the extra resources of energy, commitment, and intelligence that overlapping structures produce. This social capital, this story of urban America, becomes even stronger when the parish contains that brilliant American Catholic innovation - the parochial school.”

Fr. Greeley also says,

[Neighborhood parishes] generate levels of enthusiasm and commitment seldom matched in human community. The neighborhood/parish/school ought to be celebrated rather than be taken for granted, ignored, or worse, deplored.”

If a Catholic school serves as an agent for building community, then the loss of a Catholic school ought to have a detrimental effect on the social fabric of its immediate neighborhood. The evidence backs this hypothesis.

For instance, Gerald Gamm, Associate Professor of Political Science and History at the University of Rochester and author of Urban Exodus: Why the Jews Left Boston and the Catholics Stayed, writes,

"If you close a church in some town in Long Island, people on Long Island will still be fine. They still have their [public] school system, they still have their town hall ... they have a lot that holds them together as a community.... [But] in many of these urban neighborhoods, these churches and these parish schools are all that they have that define the neighborhoods."

The Catholic School and the Parish

Okay, Catholic schools would seem to be important to their communities, but what about their parishes? What is the value of a Catholic school to its parish? Fr. Wayne Forbes, a pastor in Portland, Oregon answers,

A Catholic school brings life to a parish. We see the school as a force to supporting families and building faith.”

And one parish in Northern Ireland summarizes quite well what many others say and what every American Catholic parish with a parish school already knows,

The parish community is closely associated with the Catholic school. At the heart of the parish is the school. Both co-exist to support the living and genuine witness of the faith. The school serves the educational and spiritual needs of the pupils and works in partnership with the parish to achieve this. In the celebration of the sacraments the parish and school community come together in a very special bond.”

What about parishes without schools? How easy is it to generate a sense of community in a parish that lacks a school? Kenneth Woodward, a Contributing Editor at Newsweek, tells us,

Maybe the reason Catholics talk so much about community is because they experience so little of it, especially when there is no parish school to create ongoing parental interest.”

The effects of Catholic school closures on their parishes

If the wider community pays a price when a Catholic school closes, does the parish also suffer? Fr. Greeley addresses this question in general terms while answering a related question, "Are Catholic schools 'worth it'?":

"Close the Catholic school and the Sunday collections go down. Don't open one and the Sunday collections are not comparable with parishes that have a Catholic school. The pertinent response to this question comes not from research findings but from consumer behavior - the willingness of many parents to pay for Catholic education whenever they can get it. They think the schools are 'worth it.'"

Dr. James Youniss, a Psychology Professor at Catholic University, has spent years studying Catholic schools. He maintains that Catholic parishes will suffer if their schools do not survive. According to Youniss,

"People meet through their kids, at school. Now imagine Catholic parishes without schools -- how are people going to get connected to each other? The typical Catholic goes to church for one hour on Sunday. Without the schools, it's not a community any more."

The closure of a Catholic school frequently results in the loss of parishioners. An article in the Detroit News reports,

“When St. Michael closed its school because there weren't enough students to support it, [parishioners] witnessed some of the parish community disappear. Many parishioners enrolled their children [in another Catholic school] and ... they also joined its church.”

Another observer has noted the loss of practicing Catholics following school closures. Kathleen Merritt, Director of Ethnic Ministries in the Diocese of Charleston, SC, writes,

"The closing of many of our traditional African American Parishes and schools has had a direct effect on the number of Black Catholics in parishes today. When these institutions close in the African American community, these Catholics are less likely to continue practicing their faith in another Catholic Church."

Summing Up

While there is no hard, statistical evidence linking the closure of Catholic schools with detrimental effects on their parishes and their wider communities, there are dozens of references that point in that direction. Furthermore, I have found absolutely none that even hint at a contrary conclusion. The available evidence may all be anecdotal, but it is all in agreement.

Put simply, the closure of a Catholic school is not an event that takes place in a vacuum. There is frequently, if not always, collateral damage to the associated parish and to the wider community.

Coming Next

Part 2 of this series will look at the limited data available for DOR in an attempt to outline the future for the 13 Monroe County parishes that will lose their schools next month.


HCmom said...

Hi Mike:
While there may be no quantitative research on this topic, your extensive qualitative research points to the common sense conclusion that our Church leadership doesn't seem to get--the schools are a NEEDED and IMPORTANT part of every parish, and the parishes will suffer greatly when the schools close. (Congratulations for having more common sense than the Bishop!)It's not just about dollars and cents, it's about the life of a parish, and the life of our wider church.

Any parent of a student at a closed catholic school will tell you this common sense conclusion. Does this mean that the parents have more common sense than the supposedly wise leadership of our diocese? Yes! And I think that's because however well-meaning and well-educated a Bishop is, he lacks the one life experience that could give him the common sense perspective that we common-folk have--being a parent and running a family. Of course schools aren't important to these men; they are not the stakeholders in the future of our children like we are. They can manipulate the numbers to create whatever "reality" they choose to create, and it will always trump the reality of the laity that supports them. Sad, but true.

Mike said...


I couldn't have said it better myself. I've watched OLM slowly die after closing its school twenty-some years ago. Oh, it's still got a pulse, but not much of one. 400 or so folks still show up every weekend, but most of them are senior citizens. Not that there's anything wrong with seniors (I'm one myself), but it really takes a good mix of all ages to really keep a parish alive.

I hope Fr. Wheeland has a plan - and a very pro-active one - for keeping the younger Catholics interested and engaged and keeping defections to parishes with schools to a minimum. Holy Cross is going to need it.