WICHITA, Kan. — As Catholic school enrollment continues to decline and schools close across the country — more than 1,400 since 1990 — dioceses could learn from the example of the Diocese of Wichita, Kan.
The diocese of more than 120,000 Catholics is not closing schools; rather, it’s opening them.
Wichita’s distinct emphasis on stewardship has enabled parishes to fund their ministries, including completely funding their parish schools since 2002, under Bishops Thomas Olmsted and Michael Jackels.
"For the Christian steward, our lives are to be rooted in gratitude," said Bishop Jackels, who has fully supported the diocese’s emphasis on authentic stewardship since his 2003 installation. "One of [our] goals ... is to deepen our practice of stewardship as a way of life, sharing responsibility for the mission of the Church."
"Stewardship was not developed to fund schools, but the funding of schools is a product of that," echoed Bob Voboril, superintendent of schools for the diocese. "Parishes are able to fund their ministries because of the generosity of those parishioners who embrace stewardship. As we realize how good God is to us, we follow God’s example and share generously with others."
The diocese traces the history of its extraordinary emphasis on a stewardship way of life to 1968 and the leadership of Msgr. Thomas McGread, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi, a parish in western Wichita.
"He said that if parishioners would give at least 5% of their income to the parish, the parish could cover all its obligations, including the elementary school," explained Voboril. "He invited parishioners to take ownership for the life of the parish."
Eight years later, in 1976, Msgr. McGread upped the ante by saying that if parishioners gave 8%, he could pay for all the students attending Catholic high school and a new parish church could be built without having a fund drive.
According to Voboril, as parishes grew stronger and had more resources, the schools gradually did away with tuition. Since 2002, all of the diocese’s 38 schools — including four Catholic high schools — have been without tuition, educating just under 11,000 students.
The diocese expects all families to attend Mass each Sunday, participate in religious education, volunteer in parish ministries and make a financial commitment. Each family is asked to fill out a pledge form committing to stewardship. The end result is that families and individuals give not only of their financial gifts, but also of their time.
So unique is the model that the Diocese of Wichita’s school system was featured in the first chapter of the 2008 book Who Will Save America’s Urban Catholic Schools, published by the Fordham Institute.
"The diocese saw that the best way to teach stewardship was not to compete. If a family is paying $3,000-$5,000 in tuition, a family is not inclined to pay its first fruits to the parish," explained Voboril.
Unlike most dioceses across the country, the Diocese of Wichita does not conduct an annual appeal or take up second collections.
The diocese has seen tremendous growth and success. In the fall of 2011, the diocese opened a new school — St. Catherine of Siena. It’s the third new school to open in the diocese within the past 10 years.
Whereas Catholic school enrollment has dropped by one-third nationally since 1985, in the Diocese of Wichita, it has increased by more than 2,000 students since 1990 — and is at a 40-year high.
The stewardship program crosses over into other areas of parish life as well.
"In just four years, we were able to cut a $4.5-million debt in half," described Father Andy Kuykendall, pastor of St. Peter the Apostle parish in Schulte, Kan. "Three times I’ve been at parishes where we got out of debt."
Father Kuykendall said that stewardship has also resulted in a growth in vocations and other projects as well.
"We’ve been blessed with an abundance of seminarians within the last 10 years," said Father Kuykendall. "The diocese has also opened the Lord’s Diner, a soup kitchen that provides a free meal to anyone seeking it, that serves more than 400 people each evening. A second one is being built in south Wichita."
"There’s a deep sense of faith and parish involvement that permeates the entire diocese," said Voboril. "The spread of perpetual Eucharistic adoration, 50 seminarians, some of the best Newman Centers in the country, a dynamic natural family planning office, a ‘free’ restaurant and medical clinic, a growing diocesan order of sisters, one of the largest groups of pilgrims to the March for Life each January — all these testify not to the power of schools that do not charge tuition, but to what happens when everything is united around lived discipleship."
"The best benefit is that people come to church," said Voboril. "Between 50%-70% of parishioners and 80% of school students are at Mass every Sunday."
"In most dioceses, 20% of children in the diocese attend Catholic schools," said Leticia Nielsen, president of Bishop Carroll High School. "Here, 60% of children attend Catholic schools. We don’t see ourselves as elite prep schools, but diocesan schools serving the broad Catholic community."
Voboril says that the emphasis on stewardship makes their schools different. That begins with the deep Catholic culture in the Diocese of Wichita’s schools.
"If the parish is funding the school, then the school had better be Catholic first, Catholic every place and Catholic all the time to justify the parish’s large expenditure," explained Voboril. "This starts with the name of the school, the formation of the teachers, the priority given to quality religious instruction, the infusion of values into the ‘secular’ subjects and activities, and the priority given to mission and core values."
The differences also extend to the makeup of the schools.
"Because enrollment and the budget are not based upon the user’s ability to pay a steep tuition, we are able to serve a much greater cross-section of the Catholic community," said Voboril. "We have far more ethnic diversity, socio-economic diversity, and even diversity in learning aptitude."
"This is how Catholic schools should be," said Voboril. "They are built around faith. They are built around parish. They are built around community. And they are built around the Spirit."