THE AVERAGE tuition in a Catholic elementary school for the 1996-97 academic year was $1,303, according to the National Catholic Education Association (NCEA). NCEA spokeswoman Barbara Keebler explains that the gap in the actual $2,145 average per-pupil cost was bridged by endowments or with proceeds from candy sales, raffles, and the like.
With a per pupil cost of $3,000 for its elementary school, Christ the King parish in Jacksonville, Fla., is slightly higher than average, but that doesn't mean parents are struggling to pay.
The secret: A program championed by recently retired pastor, Msgr. Mortimer Danaher.
“Because of the parishioners tithing 8 percent of their income,” explains Pat Thomas, the parish director of development, “we have a tuition-free school for children who are members of the parish.”
This not only includes the 660 children in the elementary school, but also takes in the fully subsidized 160 teens in the diocesan Bishop Kenny High School, and the 15 special education students, also in the diocesan-run school that's located on the parish grounds.
Put in place in 1989, the stewardship plan absolutely flourishes.
“It's pretty revolutionary,” NCEA's Keebler remarks about the method that makes Christ the King a rare model among more than 8,200 Catholic schools in the country.
Yet there's nothing esoteric going on—just a solid grounding in Scripture, Church teaching, prayer, and love of neighbor, all gathered under the words “tithing” and “stewardship.”
Like many schools, Christ the King had tuition problems for many years. Msgr. Danaher noted that, previously, the parish raised tuition a few dollars every month. Slowly, the school lost students.
The experience was not unusual. In The American Catholic Experience, Church historian Jay Dolan cites finances as “the most serious problem facing Catholic educators,” even back in the 19th century, since operating a school could account for 30-50 percent of parish expenses.
First turning to stopgap measures—such as ads in supermarkets, letters to the editor, and the like—to deal with the problem, the pastor emeritus realized the parish needed a solid program rather than gimmicks.
The solution began as a straightforward challenge.
“I went to ask the families for help,” Msgr. Danaher recalls. “I told them there are 47 different ways God tells us in the Bible to give 10 percent off the top,” and that we're “talking like fools if we follow our plan and not God's.”
Then Francis “Dutch” Scholtz, director of stewardship for the Diocese of St. Augustine, was invited to explain the details to parishioners. Lay people witnessed how stewardship had changed their lives—and collections increased.
The important foundation stone, however, according to Msgr. Danaher, was regular eucharistic adoration carried out on a daily basis.
“I told people we had to start praying for our people, our country, our children,” he says. “Nothing but goodness started in our parish [with that].”
The next step was to get the laypeople actively sharing time and talents with and for each other.
“Prayer is critical and central to the whole program,” explains Scholtz, who opened the stewardship office for the diocese 11 years ago, and who has been actively promoting these programs in talks across the country for more than 35 years.
Accepting such a program “has to do with conversion,” he stresses. “Our needs are simple, but we live in a world that promotes wants as needs,” yet people such as those at Christ the King “were ready for a counter-cultural” response.
The importance of helping youth in the parish obtain a Catholic education struck a chord with parishioners. Supporting the school with their tithing program, whether they were parents of students or not, seemed a worthy pursuit.
The plan was not “a matter of writing off tuition,” says Msgr. Danaher, “but of the parish saying, ‘we're going to take care of our children.’”
The material goods, he added, “are just chattel,” but what “we pass on to the kids—and they pass on to their kids—is the important matter, the stuff of real worth.”
Scholtz says “the key thing is that it's based on the Gospel—this is a Gospel message. … We have a responsibility to fellow human beings to be more generous.”
He also cites the 1992 U.S. bishops’ pastoral, Stewardship: A Disciple's Response, as another key for the program because “it gives a theological underpinning.”
What's happened at Christ the King parish, described as being in one of Jacksonville's poorest areas? The collection now averages more than $50,000 a week from its 2,500 mostly poor and middle-class families. There are very few doctors and other professionals in the parish, according to Msgr. Danaher.
However, as a result of the weekly offertory, the parish picks up the cost for 660 elementary students at $3,000 each year, 160 high school students at $3,333, and 15 special education pupils at $3,780 each. Students whose families don't belong to the parish are responsible for paying tuition for themselves.
Before, “we were pricing ourselves out of business for single moms,” explains Thomas. Now these children stay in the parish school, with the added benefit that “it gives [to others] a sense of helping people in their parish.”
When time and talent come first, Thomas adds, the treasure easily follows because people get a sense of ownership and involvement along with the initial spiritual underpinning. For instance, many ethnic-style dinners, socials, and free breakfasts after Mass draw people together.
As Scholtz says, “The main thing is not the money, but what happens to people's lives.”
Besides tuition, these events and regular parish expenses account for 80 percent of the 10 percent tithe. From the balance, half goes to the annual bishop's appeal, and half to charity. Even the parish as a whole tithes.
“We give approximately $100,000 a year to between 20-25 different ministries,” says Thomas, “like missions in Africa, Jacksonville emergency pregnancy services, unwed mothers, and a house for retarded adults.”
The success at Christ the King, whose program Msgr. Danaher adopted from Father Tom McGread in Wichita, Kan., where it's in place in several parishes, is beginning to catch on. Blessed Trinity in Ocala, Fla., and Holy Name of Jesus in West Palm Beach, have implemented this approach. In the Diocese of St. Augustine, three pastors have teamed together to build Annunciation Catholic School, next to St. Luke's Church in Middleburg, near Jacksonville, to run on the same program.
The “tithing model” is expected to remain in place at Christ the King under the new pastor, Father Robert Baker.
It seems clear that it works, though for Msgr. Danaher, implementing the system was “a leap of faith,” Scholtz says.
Now that others have seen the waters are fine, they're beginning to follow his example and make sure parish kids have no obstacles to receiving a Catholic education.
Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Conn.