NEW YORK — Faced with a perilous financial situation and plummeting enrollment, the historic Heart of Mary Catholic School in the Archdiocese of Mobile, Alabama, looked likely to close at the end of the school year until what the former students convince the archbishop otherwise. The caveat: they were to fund and run the school, independent of the archdiocese.
“It was the only way to keep the school open, and so, I am willing to try,” Archbishop Thomas Rodi of Mobile said. Node. “This is something we haven’t done before in the Archdiocese of Mobile, but I think we need to be innovative in keeping our Catholic schools open.”
Outside the Archdiocese of Mobile, this type of arrangement between a diocese and a school is rare but not unheard of. There are 857 Catholic schools in the United States that operate independently of a parish or diocese, according to data from the National Catholic Educational Association.
Most of them, however, operate under a religious organization – Jesuits, Xaverian Brothers, Sisters of Notre Dame, to name a few – as opposed to a full-fledged entity. The NCEA does not keep a breakdown of who runs these independent Catholic schools.
From a diocesan perspective, the challenge of independent Catholic schools is a question of fidelity to the mission of the diocese and, more broadly, to the mission of Catholic education. Bishop Thomas Daly of Spokane, chairman of the U.S. Episcopal conference education committee, said Node this is a risky proposition for a diocese, citing that a school’s Catholic identity comes from the diocese or archdiocese of which it is a part.
“I’m always suspicious when a school becomes independent because there’s always the risk that it will just become a private school,” Daly said. “It’s hard to keep a school true to its mission when its identity rests on its independence.”
“An independent school will require great vigilance to ensure that it is faithful,” Daly continued. “It’s not about interfering with it, but making sure it’s a Catholic school as we understand a Catholic school to be – that the teachings of the Church are promulgated; that the school is composed mainly, if not exclusively, of practicing Catholics. These are all great challenges.
To answer the question of “faithful to the mission”, some dioceses – including the Archdiocese of Mobile with Heart of Mary – are considering audits to ensure that independent schools are adhering to diocesan standards. Nationally, Daly said the USCCB is exploring an accreditation process for all Catholic schools — diocesan, parochial and private — through Catholic universities nationwide.
“To qualify as a Catholic school, it has to be recognized by the bishop, and I think accreditation will help maintain that because it’s very focused and intentional,” Daly said.
In the Archdiocese of Mobile with Heart of Mary, Rodi admitted that the school staying true to the archdiocesan mission is “a real concern” given the “uncharted situation”. However, he has faith in the group of former students taking the helm.
“I think those who are involved right now in trying to keep the school open and vibrant are committed to Catholic education. They profess a belief in the mission of Catholic schools,” Rodi said. “Catholic schools educate the whole student – academically, socially, culturally, politically, spiritually – and they told me of their commitment to teaching Gospel values and they want the school to remain Catholic.”
121 and over
During the Civil Rights era, Paulette Lewis was a “poor Catholic girl” from a small town in Mississippi unable to attend a nearby Catholic school because she was black. Regardless, her parents wanted her to receive a Catholic education, and through a connection her brother—who was in seminary at the time—had with a seminarian from Mobile, she was able to live with a woman. out of town and attend Heart of Mary.
Lewis said graduating from Heart of Mary “changed the trajectory” of her life. The school currently serves students from kindergarten through eighth grade. It had a full high school curriculum until the middle of the 20th century.
“When I finished I was convinced that I could compete in college or in any field depending on the education we received and Heart of Mary was a very, very special community of young people” , Lewis said. Node. “I think it’s very important for children to have a sense of belonging and community and that’s what Heart of Mary has provided.”
Josephite priests founded Heart of Mary in 1901. Priests and nuns from the school marched alongside civil rights activists. Its alumni include former US Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman; Major General Gary Cooper, the first black to command a Marine combat infantry company in Vietnam; and Simmie Lee Knox, who painted an official portrait of President Bill Clinton, the first black person chosen to do so.
“When you have those kinds of stories and you can tell those kinds of stories to kids who figuratively sit in the same seats as those people, then those kids know they’re capable of that too. because they have a lot more resources now than those people had then,” said Karlos Finley, who attended the school until fifth grade and now sits on the school board.
Challenges for Heart of Mary over the past decade are primarily due to declining enrollment, which has resulted in lower funding. Heart of Mary enrollment has dropped from 227 in 2000, to 185 in 2010, to 73 in 2021.
Rodi said it had been difficult to keep the school open for the past 10 years. Three years ago the school became unsustainable and was handed over to a council of businessmen who withdrew in January. The new alumni group was approved to take over on March 28 after raising more than $450,000 through a fundraising campaign.
Details of who will sit on the board of governors and the approach the group will take to improve finances and increase enrollment are still in the works. Finley, however, said promoting the school through local churches, daycares, businesses and institutions will be a key part of their revitalization efforts, adding that they are committed to Catholic education.
“The school will be committed to the Catholic faith and be a denominational institution. It’s who we are, and we don’t want to stray from that,” Finley said.
Audits and Accreditation
Finley stressed that the decision to make the school independent was not a choice; it was a must for the school to survive. That said, the archdiocese still wants to make sure it follows the mission in the same way as other Catholic schools in the archdiocese, and Rodi said the office of Catholic schools in the archdiocese is in the process of formulating these policies.
Rodi anticipates it will include criteria for the curriculum, a standard for religion teaching time per day, and expectations for teachers.
In the Diocese of Trenton, the superintendent of Catholic schools, Dr. Vincent de Paul Schmidt, said Node of a similar situation where a Catholic school that left the diocese to remain open still wanted to be called a Catholic school, and it had to meet a set of criteria to do so – including Mass times, sacrament preparation and other general protocols.
There is at least one other school in the Diocese of Trenton that has taken this route. Schmidt said they are changing the structure of the diocese “so that they reflect their catholicity more than before.”
The situation with Heart of Mary in the Archdiocese of Mobile, or schools in the Diocese of Trenton, is still rare and generally reserved for situations where a group of passionate alumni, parents, or a community want to keep a school alive when an archdiocese can no longer.
This, however, is among Daly’s reasons for creating a national accreditation system for Catholic schools, noting that his committee emphasized “fidelity to the mission of a Catholic school.”
“I think the initiative is to take a look at what we’re doing, and are we Catholic, or are we just lukewarm, mediocre Christian schools?” Dally said. “It’s not seminaries or novitiates, but I think what caused COVID and then the closures and now the surge in enrollment is what are we really talking about as Catholic schools?”
Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg