ST. PAUL, Minn. — When part of St. Bernard's School in St. Paul, Minn., was threatened with closure, the community sprang into action.

A growing debt led the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis to shutter the elementary portion of St. Bernard's, a K-12 school. The 115-year-old parish is an anchor in the urban neighborhood and crucial for its revitalization efforts, according to parishioner Frank Sprandel, the father of two St. Bernard students. He rallied local business owners for help, while other parents began an alumni appeal.

Today, St. Bernard's school is in the black and regarded as the archdiocese's “miracle story.” But it illustrates the plight of hundreds of inner-city Catholic schools that are faced with demographic shifts, declining enrollment and rising costs.

Many schools and parishes have found creative ways to keep open schools that had been struggling.

“Our neighborhood has transitioned from German and Austrian families to new immigrants from all over,” said St. Bernard's President Jennifer Cassidy. “Many of them are just getting a starter house, they don't have cars, they look at our school with uniforms and tuition and say, ‘no way.’ How do we make sure the kids living across the street look at our school as a place to go?”

Small rural parishes are also feeling the stress of rising costs. St. James Church in Randall, Minn., pays one-third of its income to the Catholic school in nearby Little Falls, and only six of its parishioners attend the school.

Trustee Tom Koenig is concerned there isn't enough money left for needed repairs on the church and rectory.

“It's becoming clear that rural parishes have to decide whether they can continue to support Catholic schools or keep their own doors open. That's where it's at with us.”

According to a statement released this summer by the U.S. bishops, “Renewing Our Commitment to Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools in the Third Millennium,” Catholic schools are the most effective means for the Church to educate its children, and often the most effective contribution to the poor and disadvantaged families. The document also states that “it is the responsibility of the entire Catholic community … to make Catholic elementary and secondary schools available, accessible and affordable to all Catholic parents and their children, including those who are poor and middle class.”

Challengers

Yet, since 1990, despite the fact that more than 400 new Catholic schools opened in the United States, there has been a net decline of more than 850 Catholic schools, mostly in urban, inner-city and rural areas. Tuition has doubled.

“The challenge each church has is trying to keep a presence in those (inner-city and rural) areas, and certainly one of the best ways is through the schools, but there's only so much money to go around,” said Christian Brother Robert Bimonte, executive director of Elementary Education at the National Catholic Education Association in Washington, D.C.

Last year, a wave of Catholic school closings in several metropolitan areas was a wake-up call for many dioceses. Schools like St. Bernard's in St. Paul are starting to establish capital campaigns, alumni appeals, endowment funds and partnerships with local businesses and organizations to defray costs, said Brother Bimonte.

Nicholas Wolsonovich, Superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Archdiocese of Chicago, is a strong advocate of the Wichita model and is concerned that Catholic schools will exist only for the wealthy unless changes are made.

“We really believe that the financial responsibility for financing Catholic schools cannot continue to be placed upon the users. About 80% of the per-pupil cost is borne by users, and it's causing financial pressures on families to say they just can't afford it anymore,” said Wolsonovich.

Since 1964, enrollment in Chicago's Catholic schools has declined by 260,000 and 250 schools have closed. Tuition has increased from just a few dollars to an average of $3,200. Today, only about 23% of Chicago's baptized Catholics regularly attend Mass, and give 1% of their income. Wolsonovich contrasts that with Wichita, Kan., which has seen enrollment increase by one-third in its schools, well-paid teachers and new or expanded schools.

“Something significantly different has to happen. I firmly believe it has to be stewardship where the Catholic community gets together and supports the schools, not just the users,” said Wolsonovich. “Money follows vision and if people aren't practicing their faith, they're not going to contribute to something they don't believe in.”

Father James Dean, pastor of Our Lady Queen of Mercy Church in Montgomery, Ala., introduced a stewardship plan two years ago, asking parishioners to tithe so the parish could retire a $135,000 debt, and begin offering free tuition to registered, active parishioners. Within a year the debt was paid and 23 families won tuition-free status at the school. School and parish enrollment has steadily increased, air conditioning was added to the gymnasium and a new kitchen installed in the 40-year-old school.

“People started coming to Mass, and the parish started attracting younger people. It generated a lot of excitement,” said Father Dean. “The atmosphere definitely changed. It was a response to the enthusiasm toward stewardship and taking ownership of the church.”

Wichita Models

The Catholic school system in the Diocese of Wichita, Kan., relies on stewardship to provide a tuition-free elementary and high school education to active Catholic parishioners. Superintendent of Schools Bob Voboril said parishioners are asked to give 8% of their income to their parish. In turn, parishes contribute, on average, 70% of their income to Catholic schools, which are viewed by parishioners as a critical mission of the Church.

“Stewardship is not a way to fund schools, but a way to live one's faith, and tuition-free schools is one of the blessings,” said Voboril. “Our view is that Catholic schools don't have a money problem; they have a faith problem. If you get people to practice their faith in the parish, they'll be generous, and the parish will then provide for the Catholic education of its children.”

Barb Ernster is based in Fridley, Minnesota.