ALAMOGORDO, N.M. — Catholic schools in dire straits have closed or consolidated in the last few years. But others facing the same difficulties have remained open and thrive. The difference often is made by outside rescuers.

Father James B. Hay School in Alamogordo, N.M., was so bad off that when a large door snapped off its hinges and crashed through a window, the school couldn’t afford the $700 needed for repairs. “We didn’t know what we were going to do,” Principal Linda Pickett said.

That same day, two members of the local Knights of Columbus St. Mary Council No. 3355 bought new hinges and hydraulic closing devices, paid for out of their own pockets, and spent the day repairing and refurbishing the door and replacing the window.

It was routine for the 50-year-old school, its 12 employees, 80 students in kindergarten through eighth grade and 19 pre-schoolers to see the local Knights riding to the rescue again.

“They truly are our angels of mercy,” Pickett said. “We wouldn’t survive without them.”

She means that literally. The Knights’ help has meant the difference for Father Hay as the only Catholic school in Alamogordo. Repairing the roof, tiling bathrooms, mowing the lawn, fixing the furnace and air conditioning all became part of the Knights’ contribution as they were looking to help an orphan somewhere.

“We said, we have an orphan right here in Alamogordo,” past Grand Knight Alfredo Pacheco said, referring to the school. Father Hay isn’t affiliated with a parish, and, while it is overseen by the Diocese of Las Cruces, it gets only limited diocesan funds. The chapel at nearby Holloman Air Force Base also helps out financially, Pickett said, and parents are required to contribute several hours of service.

Council No. 3355’s 15 to 20 active members also raise money to help defray tuition costs through projects like an annual corned-beef-and-cabbage dinner.

“They bring us a check once a month and give us the money for kids in financial need,” said Pickett. “The Knights have become our Catholic community support.”

According to the National Catholic Education Association, 173 Catholic schools — 163 elementary and 10 secondary — consolidated or closed in the 2004-2005 school year out of 6,574 elementary and 1,225 secondary schools in the United States. At the same time, 37 new schools opened.

“Consolidated isn’t closed,” pointed out Karen Ristau, president of the association. She found several reasons for the consolidations or closures, beginning with complex demographic shifts in some areas of the country.

“Population shifts affect parishes and schools,” Ristau said. She cited other reasons too, such as the general distress from sex abuse scandal in the Church and the fact that it’s not part of many inner-city immigrants’ tradition to send their children to Catholic schools.

“And escalating costs are a concern,” Ristau said, “but I think that can easily be overcome.” She noted that last June the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a letter, “Renewing Our Commitment to Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools in the Third Millennium.”

“It reaffirms that the bishops still feel this is the best way for families to raise their kids and keep them close to the Church,” she said, “but it also challenged others to help out.”

The Big Shoulders Fund in Chicago (www.Bigshouldersfund.org) has been meeting that challenge for several years. The fund has kept 93 inner-city Chicago schools open.

“The mission of the Big Shoulders Fund,” said Executive Director Joshua Hale, “is to provide support to the Catholic schools in the neediest areas of inner-city Chicago.” They’re the poorest and oldest Catholic schools in the archdiocese, and more than half the students come from families at or below the poverty level.

Financial Strategies

One hundred percent of the funds raised by Big Shoulders goes to scholarships, special education programs, instructional equipment, facility improvement and operating costs for 76 elementary and 17 secondary schools with nearly 25,000 students. Salaries for the fund’s employees come from a separate endowment.

Hale explained Big Shoulders was founded as a 501(c) 3 foundation with a $30-million endowment 20 years ago by four businessmen at the urging of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. At first the fund granted scholarships. Today it provides anywhere between $9 to $15 million a year to its schools and is ready to meet emergencies.

Last year when more than 20 schools were slated to close because the archdiocese couldn’t fund them, Big Shoulders stepped in with an additional $1.08 million dollars to keep 10 schools open.

One was Pope John Paul II Catholic School on the southwest side in a historically Polish neighborhood that now serves an immigrant Mexican community. Hale said in 1979 Pope John Paul himself had visited this school, which at the time was named Five Holy Martyrs School, and celebrated Mass in the parking lot. In 1999, the school changed its name to honor the Pope.

Big Shoulders gave it a $100,000 operating grant and a second-year challenge grant worth up to $100,000. Another charitable trust stepped in with $150,000.

There was more. Big Shoulders believes an important part of keeping schools open is linking them with leaders from the business and civic world or a company or foundation who will commit $75,000-$100,000 a year for three years to a specific school and form a patron advisory board to create a long-term strategy to keep the school financially solvent. Big Shoulders has 35 such patrons.

“We found when you link these leaders with the school community,” Hale said, “tremendous things happen.” In the case of John Paul II School, the Exelon Corp. along with its Chief Executive Officer John Rowe and his wife, Jeanne, have committed as patrons both financially and by forming an advisory board.

When short-term emergency requests come in often, Big Shoulders carries their load too.

Hale said he got a call at the beginning of this school year from the principal of St. Therese Chinese Catholic School, which serves Chinatown.

“There was no money to meet the first payroll,” he said. “Could Big Shoulders help until the school collected some tuition?

“We called our angels and told them, ‘This school needs $10,000. Can you help them out?’” said Hale. One donor, who wished to be anonymous, immediately sent a check to Big Shoulders for $50,000 so the school, which ranks among the highest academic achievement profiles in the city, could also buy computers for students.

Joseph Pronechen is based in

Trumbull, Conn.