Until now the diocese has been successful in limiting the discussion around the closing of 13 Monroe County schools to the schools themselves. While this is, of course, the primary issue for the children, parents and building staff involved, it has had the effect of lulling many parishioners without Catholic school children into the belief that they are not directly affected. Believing they didn't have a dog in this fight, many of these folks have been content to sit on the sidelines and watch developments unfold.
Well, the sad truth is that those parishioners did have a dog in this fight - and their dog just lost.
In the first part of this series I showed that a Catholic school is frequently important – and quite often critical – to the vitality of both its parish and its wider community and that the closure of a Catholic school results in serious harm to both these groups. Since no formal studies have been done on this topic, my data consisted of dozens of articles and newspaper reports available on the Internet. While this evidence is anecdotal, it is important to note that all of it, without exception, points to these conclusions.
Here in Part 2 I am presenting some hard data that, while limited in scope, is nevertheless in agreement with the above conclusions and provides the 13 parishes whose schools will close next month an idea of what the future may hold for them.
From 2000 through 2007 I was involved in Pastoral Planning for the New Millennium, serving as one of my parishes representatives on the Steering Committee of the Eastern Greece/Charlotte Planning Group. Part of our work involved tracking Mass attendance trends in each of our six parishes and comparing this data with Mass attendance trends for the diocese as a whole. (That diocesan-wide data is the basis for DOR Mass Attendance in Free Fall, my first post on this blog.)
For the purposes of this analysis I would prefer to be working with weekend collection data. That information, however, is hard to come by and so I will have to use the Mass attendance data I do have. I suspect that both types of data will show very similar trends however, since the people coming to Mass are the same people putting money in the collection basket.
In EG/C we had 10 years of individual parish Mass attendance available to us, starting in 1998 and ending in 2007. Three parishes (Our Mother of Sorrows, St. Charles Borromeo and Holy Cross – collectively called the “Schools” group) had schools in operation during that entire period, two (Our Lady of Mercy and Holy Name of Jesus – collectively called the “No Schools” group) did not have schools, and one (St. John the Evangelist) had a school which closed in June 2005.
The graph below shows the percent change in Mass attendance for each of these three groups of parishes and also includes diocesan-wide data for reference.
This is a fairly “busy” graph and a bit of explanation might be of help: Individual data points are plotted for each of the three groups and for the diocese. Also, least squares (or linear regression) lines are shown for the “Schools,” “No Schools” and "DOR" sets of points. Finally, in the case of the parish whose school closed in 2005, two least squares lines are shown, one for the years prior to their school's closure and the second for the years after.
What the data says
The data shows that the “Schools” group saw its Mass attendance drop by about 1.9% per year over the 10 year period, while the “No Schools” group encountered a 6.4% annual decline over the same period. (For reference, DOR as a whole saw a 3.5% annual decline over the last 8 years of the period.) Interestingly, the parish whose school closed part way through the period had an annual decline in Mass attendance of 4.3% prior to the closure of its school and twice this rate, or 8.7%, after.
Implications for the 13 parishes about to lose their schools
While this is a small data set these results are consistent with what is seen at most parishes in the county: Those with schools are generally pretty stable in terms of Mass attendance, collections and other factors, while those without schools seem to have a more difficult time in these areas. There are at least a couple of explanations for this behavior.
First, once a parish loses a school it is almost inevitable that it will also lose some of its parishioners. Parents who have been forced to register their children at other parish schools will soon discover that they have become members of two distinct communities – communities which are often in competition with one another.
For instance, a school will tend to synchronize its calendar with that of its parish. But when a school has students from several parishes scheduling conflicts are simply inevitable. The easiest way for a family to minimize these conflicts is to transfer to the other parish.
Second, a parish that has lost its school has also lost a source of new members. Many younger Catholics who do not take their faith very seriously begin to do so once they are married and start a family. As their children approach school age and the family starts to look for a parish, they will most likely be attracted to parishes with schools, especially if they have any interest in Catholic education. Parishes without schools will have little chance of welcoming these families as new members.
It is impossible to believe that Bishop Clark and the members of his task force did not have attendance and collection data available to them and that they were not aware of the implications that closing 13 schools held for the 13 parishes involved. If these people did not know that they were imposing something akin to a death sentence on those 13 parishes then they don't deserve the title of “expert.”
Once one realizes the probable future of these 13 parishes the data in It Isn't About the Money? - Update starts to make some sense. It's no coincidence that, for the most part, schools at financially weaker parishes were selected for closure. After all, one most be careful to minimize the damage to the geese that are laying the golden eggs.
Bishop Clark knows on which side his bread is buttered.