Across the country Catholic dioceses are struggling with demographic changes that have made many suburban parishes swell to overflowing while some inner city parishes struggle to stay afloat.
One of the harshest consequences has been the need to close many Catholic schools because of financial problems.
But the Diocese of Memphis, Tenn., is reversing that trend. It has announced plans to reopen six inner city Catholic schools after receiving a multimillion-dollar donation from sources who wish to remain anonymous.
Mary McDonald, superintendent of schools for the diocese, spoke recently with Register Radio News correspondent Jay Dunlap.
Jay Dunlap: How would you describe the success of the Memphis program?
Mary McDonald: I know that this sounds unbelievable, but through prayer and faith, God decided it was his time to perform a miracle here in Memphis. And the miracle is that he sent a good Samaritan, and that's basically how it happened. There are several anonymous donors who value what a Catholic education does in a community and made it affordable for us to reopen six schools in the inner city area that were closed.
Did the diocese actively campaign for this donation?
No, not at all. Bishop J. Terry Steib, our bishop here in Memphis, has always had the vision that the schools should be in those areas where we are not. That means that we ought to be not just where it's affordable and where we can maintain them financially, but our Catholic schools should be where it is not affordable and where there is a lot of need.
Our Catholic schools have always done it. In this country, we have a long history of educating those who have great need, who are living in poverty or are new immigrants to this country. But when I first took this position, when he appointed me last year as superintendent, he shared that vision with me, and I remember saying, “Wow! That's going to take a miracle.” And so we prayed for a miracle. But it wasn't an active campaign. It was just a lot of things coming together at the same time.
More than a quarter of the students in your current 18 schools are non-Catholic. Given that these schools are “where you aren't,” so to speak, they're likely to serve many non-Catholics. Is it a missionary out-reach?
Definitely. In terms of evangelization, yes. Not necessarily conversion, but evangelization. I think that the mission of our Church has always been to reach out to those in need. That's part of what being a Catholic means. It's part of what having a Catholic school is all about. So yes, definitely, it will serve the needs of all of the children. It isn't just for the Catholic population in Memphis. It's for all of the population of Memphis. We are a mission diocese here, so the Catholic population is very, very small to begin with. But it doesn't negate the fact that we still have the obligation to meet the needs of others though our own needs may be great.
The donations that have come through are big enough to make it affordable for lower income families?
Our Catholic schools should be where it is not affordable and where there is a lot of need.
—Mary McDonald, school superintendent
The heart of the donation goes to the children. The vast majority of the donation is set up as a foundation for scholarships and financial aid to assist those families and children who would choose to go to these schools. It will assist them in getting there. It will be a financial means of having them attend the schools. So that's what the heart of the donation is.
Now of course there are renovation costs and start-up costs. One of these schools has been vacant for 30 years, so it's not like we can just move in tomorrow. Others have been closed maybe five, 10 or 15 years. So there's quite a bit of work to be done. There's also staffing needs that have to be met. The curriculum has to be set. And now with technology, we want to be sure that these schools are just like all of our other schools.
There are no unimportant children and no unimportant areas of the city. So we want to make sure that the children who attend these schools have everything that they need. So it's going to take some time. We're going to be doing it gradually. Start-up costs are one part of the donation. The vast majority of the moneys donated will go to the ongoing financial assistance program. But that's where we need the help of other people.
So how long do you think it will take to get all six schools up and running all the way through eighth grade?
Actually, one is up and running right now. It took us just a week and a half. This school had only been closed five years and was in very good shape and so we have someone there now on site who is taking applications for the current school year, so that one will open this year with kindergarten. Next year we will open two more, and then the following year the other three.
And you're adding a grade or two every year?
Right. We're not just opening the school and saying now we have eight grades. What we're doing is building the school, a programmatic approach. What we want to do is build it a grade at a time, so that as the school grows, the commitment of the community and of the parish grows too. It's very important for a school to reconnect to the parish. There are some fences to mend there too. When the schools were closed that was a very sad day for the parish. I'm sure there are people who are wondering, “OK, now you're coming back. How long are you going to stay?” And we want people to know that we're there for good and we don't intend to leave. That's why it's crucial that we assure the continuity of the financial assistance program, so that these schools don't ever close again.
Do you think what's happening there in Memphis could become a trend? Granted that this came out of nowhere as a “gift from God,” could it be replicated elsewhere?
This is definitely a gift from God — and God can do his work anywhere. Yes, I do think this is something that could be and should be replicated. I know the easiest thing in the world to do is just look towards areas of growth, and we have them here in Memphis. We have areas where people are moving in all of the time and where the Catholic population is growing. We do have to address the needs in these areas.
But we also look back and reclaim our heritage. When we closed schools in the inner city or in impoverished areas, we didn't just leave buildings. We left the children. And we have to go back. We have to look at our roots and say what was Catholic education founded for? What was it meant to do? And if you look at the roots of that, it was founded to help the very same children 100 and 200 years ago that we have right now in our city. So I do hope that others dioceses around the country look at what we're doing, and I would be most happy to share with them any information at all that would help them do the same thing.
I know that there are programs in other areas that are addressing needs — school vouchers, charter programs, things like that. I think the one advantage that the Catholic school system has in addressing these needs immediately is the reputation.
We all stand on each other's shoulders in Catholic education. For a very long time, since the founding of this country, Catholic schools have addressed a need and done it very effectively. What we're doing now is what we've always done best. It's educating children in truth, God-centered education, faith-based education. Character is part of the whole curriculum.
So I think the advantage is this a known quantity we're talking about. This is the Catholic schools system, as opposed to another program.