Forty years ago the thought of a Catholic school recruitment drive would have been laughable. In 1964, the peak for enrollment, 43,000 students packed into parochial Cathlic schools in the seven-county Roman Catholic Diocese of Syracuse. Classroom size was limited to 55 students, although Thomas Costello, who served as superintendent of Catholic schools for 15 years and auxiliary bishop of the diocese for the past 30, recalls the occasional skirmish with a priest who tried to “shoehorn a few extra students” into a class.
Back then classes were almost always taught by a Catholic nun. The parochial school defined neighborhoods, in fact, defined childhood for many Syracusans, once among the most heavily Catholic Rust Belt cities in the United States. “You didn’t live in the Bellevue area, you lived in Rosary,” says Costello, his baritone giving emphasis to his point.
Twist of faith: Students at the 18-month-old Cathedral Academy at Pompei go about the daily business of getting educated, with a dose of Catholic teachings on the side. All photos Michael Davis.
The Parochial League, in which eight parish-based high school basketball teams took to the hardwoods against one another night after night, produced rivalries that people still talk about in barrooms and courtrooms all over the county. Syracuse’s Catholic schools produced many of Syracuse’s mayors, congressional representatives, judges and musicians.
Today fewer than 3,000 children attend 23 Catholic elementary schools in the diocese and fewer than 1,000 are in the city. Three years ago, a diocesan committee recommended the closure or combining of a number of parish schools in order to preserve those that had a chance of surviving. The remaining schools will no longer be parish schools. Like the local high schools, Bishop Ludden and Bishop Grimes, they have become diocesan schools, or Bishop’s Academies.
CAP is one of four elementary schools organized under that banner, meaning they are no longer administered by a parish but rather through the diocesan central office on East Onondaga Street. The others are Holy Rosary on Bellevue Avenue, St. Charles on West High Terrace, and Holy Family on Chapel Drive. Each parish without its own school is assessed a proportion of its Sunday collection to bridge the gap between what parents pay in tuition and the actual cost of their education.
That gap, according to Michael Colabufo, superintendent of schools for the diocese, is more than $4,000. It now costs the schools $7,400 annually per child, and tuition is set at $3,200 for a single child. Already there are signs of grumbling among pastors and lay leaders in outlying parishes about the assessments. According to the Rev. Kevin Hannon of St. Ann in Manlius, the assessment levied on his parish more than doubled in the past year. “I’m in favor of Catholic schools,” says Hannon. “I was the pastor of a parish with a school, St. Margaret’s in Mattydale. But you can’t bankrupt your parish to pay for the schools.”
Colabufo became superintendent in January 2006, coming to the job after a long career in public education in the city schools and in Solvay. During his first month on the job, eight schools closed or were merged. By the year 2010 the diocese plans to have collected all the remaining parish schools under the diocesan umbrella. This is the continuation of a process begun in the 1960s with the construction of Bishop Grimes and Bishop Ludden high schools. Prior to that, many parishes took it as a point of pride to have their own high school.
Keeping the Faith
If Catholic schools are in crisis, there is no hint of it when you walk through the halls. At CAP, 923 N. McBride St., children move from class to class along painted cinder block hallways, making their way to the gym or heading to lunch. Sounds of music lessons and recitations blurt out of open doorways and, except for their pressed blue uniforms, the kids look much the same as their public school counterparts. Posters with religious mottos and images paper the walls, but there are also notices about the importance of washing your hands before meals.
Closing time: Children at Cathedral Academy at Pompei head for their buses at the end of day; Sister Monica Nortz stands outside the shuttered St. Anthony’s School: “We tried everything we could. In the end, the school closed because of money.”
The messages are tied to the Catholic faith, but the social values they promote aren’t all that different from character education efforts in the public schools: Respect and tolerance top the list. In the cafeteria (home to the famous Our Lady of Pompei Election Day spaghetti supper) children are reminded to behave just as Jesus would. According to the poster on the wall, that includes pushing their chair back under the table when the meal is through.
CAP opened in September 2007 as a merger of two schools, Our Lady of Pompei and Cathedral School just off Columbus Circle. Many of the students are from poor families; 81 percent qualify for free lunch. The student body is “not quite 50 percent Catholic” according to LaBarbera, and about half are black, the majority of them children of Sudanese immigrant families. “This is a mission school, says LaBarbera, “probably the only one left. We depend on the generosity of the public.”
The scene is the same, although the faces are very different, at St. Daniel/St. Matthew Academy (SDSM), 214 Kinne St., East Syracuse. Here, 85 percent of the school’s families are Catholic. About half of the students come from families who live or work in the area; the rest are bused or dropped off from homes in 12 outlying school districts, some from as far away as LaFayette. At SDSM, nearly 40 percent of families receive some help with tuition through the Diocesan Tuition Assistance Program. That funding in turn comes from assessments levied on each parish and private fund-raising efforts.
For CAP students, most of that generosity has been channeled through the extraordinary efforts of the recently deceased Monsignor Joseph Champlin. His Guardian Angel Society provided $200,000 in tuition assistance this past year alone. In addition, says LaBarbera, Guardian Angel funding covered the school’s operating deficit, and paid the salaries of three teachers he otherwise would have had to let go. Champlin’s passing in January raises another question on the future of Catholic education in Syracuse. His fund-raising prowess made him the man with his finger in the dike for more than a decade, and it remains to be seen if the operation will survive him.
His annual major fund-raising event, the Swinging Cabaret, is held near Valentine’s Day. A record turnout of more than 600 people this year produced a net of $26,000, according to Kathy Fedrizzi, the society’s development director. In 10 years Champlin managed to raise more than $2 million, which helped subsidize Catholic education for hundreds of kids who were students at Cathedral School. The Guardian Angel Society continues to support those students as they move on to Catholic high schools and then to college.
For his part, Bishop James Moynihan has also raised nearly $2 million to support Catholic education, and that money is being invested to eventually be disbursed to the schools, according to Colabufo.
Change of Habit
As parish schools closed, much to the dismay of many of their alumni, responsibility for the schools became more centralized. “Going back to the Council of Baltimore in 1870,” says Costello, “the church had a belief that there should be a Catholic education for every Catholic child.” That ideal has long been abandoned.
If you talk to parents or school officials about the drop in numbers, two factors stand out: the rise in cost and the decline in the number of Catholics. Costs are up principally because of one signature change—the rapidly vanishing nun. The Catholic sister, dressed in black and white habit, who presided over the classroom of earlier generations, is for the most part gone. Catholic sisters in education are an endangered species. Of the 23 elementary schools in the diocese, religious women run three of them: St. Charles, St. Mary’s in Cortland and St. Rose of Lima in North Syracuse.
Nationwide, nuns comprise only 3.4 percent of teachers in Catholic schools, according to a 2006-2007 survey by the National Catholic Education Association. This sea change is to religious education what global warming is to the natural world, and as this well-known species goes extinct, the ecosystem is struggling to adapt.
“Most of my life was spent in the classroom,” says semi-retired Sister Monica Nortz of St. Joseph of Carondolet; she taught at schools in Troy, Amsterdam, Binghamton and Endwell before coming to St. Anthony’s on the South Side in 1976. “I just loved teaching kids. My mother was a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse.”
When Nortz served the diocese as assistant superintendent for curriculum for five years in the 1970s, every principal she worked with was a nun. Those women or, more precisely, their religious communities, were paid a stipend of $50 to $100 per month, plus room and board. Three years ago, the diocesan schools made the decision to raise teachers’ salaries in order to retain educators who were leaving for better-paying jobs in the public schools. According to Colabufo, a major fund-raising effort enabled the diocese to raise starting salaries from $16,000 to $22,000. Adds LaBarbera, starting teachers at his school can earn $26,000, and 20 years later they can expect to earn as much as $40,000. Colabufo estimates that teachers in the Catholic schools today earn 75 percent to 80 percent what they could be making in a public school.
The 10 years Nortz spent at St. Anthony’s, which closed in 1986, spanned the period when an earlier generation of Catholics left the neighborhoods and nuns left both the church and the classroom. Faced with the cost of paying teachers competitive salaries and smaller numbers of Catholic children coming in the door, the church schools tried to adapt. “We tried everything we could. In the end, the school closed because of money,” says Nortz. “The diocese did not support the school, and the number of sisters dwindled. Eventually the school was 90 percent non-Catholic.”
Then, as now, Catholic school students are required to attend Mass, although they are not required to participate in Sacraments of the Church, such as going to confession or receiving communion. Nortz remembers the first Muslim family to enroll in St. Anthony’s. “They asked if their kids could be excused from Mass, and I said, ‘Yes, but we would rather have you there.’ Ninety percent of the time those kids came. Our religion was still taught, but our methods changed. It became more of an art form, rather than teaching doctrine. We did plays based on the Bible, and kids had a chance to perform.”
Today St. Anthony’s Church stands like a fortress at the corner of Midland Avenue and West Colvin Street, empty most days, save for a trickle of churchgoers on weekends. The three-story cinder block school next door has been rented out at times over the years to the Syracuse City School District, but is now largely vacant. In the course of a century, it went from being a parish school to a mission school to an elegant dinosaur.
Back to Nurture
At times Catholic schools are criticized as elitist. Like all private schools, admits Colabufo, they can select certain students and reject others. “There is an interview, a screening process that takes place at each school,” says Colabufo. “We look for a capability to learn, a sense of faith formation, and for students capable of the rigors of learning, as well as respect for values.” Catholic schools for the most part do not offer special education, and can dismiss students with behavior problems, although such issues are uncommon, according to parents and teachers.
But the schools are neither the refuge of wealthy parents seeking an alternative to the public schools nor the hope of the desperately poor. Most parents are making genuine sacrifices to send their children to a school they believe in.
“Our schools were built to take care of the immigrants—those who were different,” says Nortz. “When Bishop Costello was superintendent of schools, he was very clear that we were never to use our schools as a sanctuary for people who did not want to intermingle. When I was principal, it was a requirement that teachers go visit the homes of students. If you didn’t want to get involved with the families, you didn’t stay.
“When I arrived in 1976, the upper grades were still predominantly white kids,” she continues. “When I left, in our entire student body, we had four white children. We had neighborhood children coming in, from hard-working families. Many had migrated from the 15th Ward when Interstate 81 was put in. They bought houses in the neighborhood. These were families who worked two jobs, who wanted the best for their kids. They paid their tuition. By the later 1980s the children coming in were more from single-parent families. More families in crisis were coming in at the lower grades. We needed to do more social work. Drugs came in to the neighborhood, and there was more violence.”
Still, she recalls her years at St. Anthony’s as “the happiest times of my life. We had skating parties, sleepovers, we’d get enough cars together to take kids down to the parades, we had cookouts in the parking lot.” The picture she paints describes what most parents say they are seeking in Catholic school: a sense of community.
“In my opinion it’s the best foundation you can give a child,” says Mary Ansbrow, the mother of four children, three of whom graduated from St. Matthew and now attend Bishop Grimes and one still at the merged SDSM. “The sense of belonging—I don’t think you can get it anywhere else. My high school kids still want to work the fish fry every week. There’s a sense of community. They know they are wanted and needed and loved.”
The fish fry is just one of many fund-raisers conducted at the school, where Ansbrow also serves part time as development director. Her candy sales, fish fries and auctions are needed to bring in $50,000 to supplement the school’s budget. Twenty-five percent of the students at SDSM are children of former students. When asked if her children’s children are going to have the option of attending Catholic school, she wonders. “I don’t know. It’s hard with the tuition. A lot of us don’t have new cars, we don’t take family vacations.”
Rene Storen is a 42-year-old mother of two boys. She is a parent volunteer at SDSM who lives on Syracuse’s North Side. Her children moved from St. Daniel when the Lyncourt school closed last year, and she drives her second grader and fourth grader to SDSM every day. Her husband drives a truck, and they have extra taxes withheld from his paycheck every week as a way to save for the children’s tuition. “We claim just ‘married,’ not the kids, so that we get a return back, and that helps. We don’t have a new car, and it’s a big treat for us to go to the movies. But we want to keep this school going. It’s a nurturing family environment, and they can speak freely of their religion. I like that.”
Colabufo feels confident that the schools will be around for some time to come, although in a different form. It is hard not to notice that that most of the administrators taking over the merged schools and Bishops Academies are retired from public schools, not young people looking forward to a long career in the Catholic system.
“You do it with miracles,” says Hannon, speaking of his experience at St. Margaret’s. “You get people fired up, and somehow you make it work.” Nonetheless, he notes, the school that taught more than 400 children 10 years ago has less than 280 pupils today. “The Catholic schools are a success story,” he notes. “They took immigrant kids from uneducated families and turned them into successful Catholic Americans. But today it’s different. At St. Ann’s we have only 14 kids who go to Catholic schools. It’s not something our parents are desirous of.”
Costello sees the choice parents make today as part of a larger societal issue. He recalls a study done 30 years ago that concluded that Catholic parents, as they grew more affluent, would lose their taste for Catholic schools. “We disagreed vehemently. Turns out they were right.”