Two cities where Catholic education has been flagging are showing signs of reclaiming lost ground, thanks to generous support from private individuals and groups.

In Memphis, Tenn., private monies are opening six previously closed inner-city schools, while, in Indianapolis, they are helping build at least two new facilities.

Could this be the bell signaling the start of a new day for Catholic education nationwide? That depends on whether or not these dioceses’ success in raising funds can be duplicated elsewhere.

“No other diocese is committed to such an inner-city school reopening program as Memphis,” according to Leonard DeFiore, president of the National Catholic Education Association. “Most are building schools mostly in suburbs, responding to the new wave of demand. But inner-city schools still struggle. Memphis is unique, especially for a diocese with only 18 schools. Nothing is being done on that scale” anywhere else.

The first of the six previously closed Memphis schools, St. Augustine's, opened with 36 kindergarteners in August. The others will likewise open at that level over the next three years, then add a grade a year so that parents and students “know what's acceptable, what are the expectations,” said superintendent Mary McDonald.

Bishop J. Terry Steib of Memphis is overseeing the largest inner-city school-reopening program in the country.

Meanwhile, in Indianapolis, the locl archdiocese has built the first new Catholic inner-city school in the United States in 40 years and has another on the drawing board for next year. The building program is being financed by a fund drive which drew heavily on corporate givers and had the support of then Mayor Stephen Goldsmith. The drive set out to raise $20 million — and came up with $28 million.

Memphis Mission

Superintendent McDonald said the plan in Memphis is to go where the need is greatest. She added that, while the schools will be Catholic in mission and vision, they will be open to all. “We want to reach out to everyone, Catholic or otherwise,” she said, adding that the schools are reopening in areas that are under-served, with many new immigrants and a large black population.

“We will never close these schools again,” said McDonald. “That's our promise to these people.”

They can make the promise because of sizable donations from people who apparently see Catholic schools as a civic treasure. The donors, who remain anonymous, have chipped in unspecified millions — “several,” said McDonald. Their “seed money” will go to renovating and maintaining the buildings, which are in varying states of disre-pair. One closed just four years ago, another back in 1969.

A foundation has been established as ongoing recipient and provider of funds to cover operating deficits through tuition aid to students. The diocese has also recently opened three new schools in suburbs where the Catholic population is growing.

Indy 28 Million

The Indianapolis school, Holy Angels, whose all-black student population is 90% non-Catholic, replaces a 92-year-old building. The parish raised $700,000 of $3.2 million needed for the project; the remainder came from the campaign, called Building Communities of Hope. The other school to be built is Holy Cross Central.

“Archbishop [Daniel] Beuchlein saw the need to reach to the civic and corporate community and knew whom to go to and how to do it, so they came on board,” said Michael Halloran, the archdiocese's secretary for stewardship and development. For instance, the campaign's national chair was Marilyn Tucker Quayle, wife of the former vice president. An earlier campaign, in which the mayor was also involved, raised $1.5 million.

The appeal to these donors lies in “what Catholic schools do and for whom they do it,” said Halloran. The mayor and a number of corporate leaders looked at the eight center-city Catholic grade schools with about 2,000 children and decided they were a worthy cause.

The eight schools are 62% minority and 67% non-Catholic. More than half the students come from families living below the poverty level. “Our schools are anchors for their neighborhoods,” said Halloran. “Their test scores are dramatically different,” he added. “The religious instruction they give is one of the reasons why they are successful. We teach Catholic beliefs, traditions and values.”

Indianapolis has another ally of Catholic schooling in the 8-year-old Educational Choice Charitable Trust (CHOICE), the first of the nation's 68 private voucher programs, founded by insurance executive Patrick Rooney. CHOICE raises almost $2 million a year, with Rooney's Golden Rule Co. covering its $100,000 overhead and giving $400,000 besides. It's open to children in the city itself to attend private schools anywhere in the county, offering up to half the tuition. This year 2,600 are attending such schools on CHOICE grants — up 55% from a year ago, because CHOICE is in partnership with the newly established, New York-based Children's Scholarship Fund.

“We give scholarships. It's up to parents where the children go,” said Timothy Ehrgott, executive director of CHOICE. As it happens, this is most often to Catholic schools.

CHOICE raises its money mostly from foundations, corporations and individuals through annual campaigns. Its partnership with the archdiocese is clear enough from this fact, noted by Ehrgott: Up to 80 students a year attend the rebuilt Holy Angels with the help of CHOICE grants.

“One of the big reasons Holy Angels could be rebuilt was CHOICE,” said Ehrgott, who, though not Catholic, sends his own children to a Catholic school.

In his city, as in Memphis, generous people believe in Catholic schools and their ability to help people most in need. At St. Augustine's in Memphis, for instance, “children from incredibly poor backgrounds are already reading” after a few weeks of kindergarten, said McDonald.

They are also learning to pray and getting to know the Catholic Church. McDonald recounts how one child, visiting the parish church next door and becoming fascinated with the baptismal font, told her: “God lives in our school. We went to his house and saw his bathtub.”

Jim Bowman writes from Chicago.