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BY John Burger
It’s not exactly the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, the Spanish pilgrimage trail featured in the new Emilio Estevez film The Way. But the road from Peekskill, N.Y., to St. Patrick’s Cathedral can be just as colorful.
Father John Higgins, the 43-year-old pastor of Assumption parish in the Westchester town, will be walking the 58 miles to Manhattan today and tomorrow.
His purpose? To raise money for his struggling parish school.
In a letter to friends, he writes that Assumption School is having difficult times, and many of the parents, hit hard by the economic downturn of the past several years, are struggling to keep their kids in the school.
Father Higgins told me that he plans to traverse the roads of some of the river towns along the Hudson on his way down to Yonkers. He plans to overnight at St. Joseph’s Seminary, where he studied for the priesthood, and on Friday, he hopes to “survive to make it to St. Patrick’s” to offer Mass at 6:30pm.
His pilgrimage is part of a larger fundraising effort being undertaken by the school’s advisory board. Deemed “105 for 105,” the campaign is trying to raise $105,000 for the 105 years the school has been in existence. At last report, the effort had already brought in pledges worth over $24,000.
Father Higgins, an acquaintance from when he was a young priest in the Bronx, has been pastor since 2006. The school, he points out, has had a history of educating immigrant children — the Irish, the Italians, the Germans and Hungarians — and that tradition certainly continues, as the area is now largely Hispanic and the majority of the almost 220 children are of Ecuadoran descent.
This is not an uncommon situation for Catholic schools, particularly those in large metropolitan areas and its outlying districts. Nor is it an uncommon story that Catholic schools manage to give kids a superior education with far fewer dollars than their public counterparts.
In a very Catholic atmosphere to boot. Students attend Mass weekly and Confession monthly, and prayers throughout the school day and special devotions are a part of school life. The school prayed a Novena to St. Therese this year, in view of the financial situation.
“The cost to run our school last year was $1,327,000.00, and we’ve been told we run lean,” Father Higgins said. It costs over $6,100 to educate one child at the school. In-parish tuition is $3,300, which barely covers it.
“Add to that the fact that many of our children live far below the poverty line,” the priest said. “We embraced the mission of helping every family who wants a Catholic education for their child regardless of their ability to pay. Financially speaking, that means we have a deficit. And, yet, we still embrace the mission. This year, to be frank, our parish was no longer able to bridge the gaps. We are an inner-city parish, with all that implies.”
Parish and parents strive to make up the gap with fundraising events and a monthly second collection. And the school now has a development director, who reaches out to alumni, business owners and community leaders. And, Father Higgins added, “We apply for grants and for direct scholarships through the New York Archdiocese Inner-City Scholarship Fund and other scholarship granting organizations.”
Father Higgins told supporters that as he walks to New York they can follow him on Twitter: @CatholicPeek. And if you want to help the school, visit the parish website.
Godspeed, Father Higgins.