Those parish school puzzles

catholic schoolsAre African Americans converting to Catholicism anymore? As Nicholas Lemann writes in The Promised Land, the old saying in Chicago was that when water was sprinkled on the forehead of a black baby, he or she was baptized essentially into three interlocking institutions: the Catholic Church, the Democratic Party, and the local buildings-trade union. Now one wonders what a future historian would write about the situation today.

This question should have come up in Carla Rivera’s otherwise fine story about the “grim economic reality” facing the nation’s Catholic schools. Ms. Rivera presented eye-popping statistics — there were 850 fewer Catholic schools in 2005 than 1990, and enrollment has dropped to a low of 2.3 million. She attributes this decline to fewer priests and nuns, a population shift from cities to suburbs, rising tuition costs. I don’t buy it.

Although no one familiar with Catholic schools would dispute those explanations, they tell only part of the story.

Suburbanization can’t be the main factor; Catholic schools have been overwhelmingly suburban since at least the 1970s. A declining share of priests and nuns can’t be the main factor, either; those figures plummeted in the 1970s and ’80s, yet the big drop-off did not occur until the 1990s. And rising tuition costs can’t be the top reason; as Ms. Rivera’s story implies, plenty of Hispanic kids are attending Catholic schools.

So there must be another reason or three in this what-dunit. One suspect clearly is the church-sex abuse scandal. Another is the reduced size of Catholic families, largely because of widespread use of birth control. Yet perhaps the most overlooked suspect is the failure of Catholics, black and white, to convert their black Protestant brethren or resistance by black Protestants to Catholic evangelization.

This explanation certainly resonates with me. My youngest sister, Sarah, teaches first grade at St. Elizabeth’s in west Oakland. When I was growing up in the 1970s and ’80s, St. Elizabeth’s student population was all black (Protestant). Now the school is virtually all Hispanic (Catholic).

My sister’s school is not alone. As The Washington Post noted recently, Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington endured vituperation after he proposed secularizing numerous Catholic schools:

(S)ome parents and parishioners reacted angrily, saying Wuerl’s proposal would gut high-quality education for black children. The majority of the students in the schools that would be affected are black and not Catholic. The archdiocese subsidizes a large portion of their tuition.

According to Post reporters Theola Labbe and Jacqueline Salmon, Catholic officials blamed the introduction of Charter schools in the late 1990s:

Soon after he arrived in the District in June 2006, Wuerl said he heard from Catholic education officials that the inner-city schools were no longer financially viable. Part of the reason was that many poor families were choosing charter schools, which are free.

But the end of the Post story shows that charter schools can’t be the main reason. After all, Hispanics continue to attend Catholic schools in the diocese of Arlington, Va.:

There, school enrollment has swelled 25 percent. The diocese has opened eight elementary schools because of rapid growth in the area’s outer suburbs and rising numbers of Hispanic Catholic immigrants in the closer-in suburbs.

For whatever reason, black Protestants today are not following in the footsteps of their forebears in such black Catholic enclaves as Chicago and New Orleans. Granted, a reporter who nailed this story would deserve the Pulitzer. But he or she could explain why Catholic schools are diverse but, well, increasingly parochial.

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  • Amy P

    I thought that it was the Irish who were supposed to be baptized, given union cards, and registered Democratic all in the same day. It doesn’t really work to tell it with African-Americans–a lot of unions explicitly excluded them.

  • Peggy

    Amy P makes the same correction I was preparing to type. This 3-way baptism was in reference to the the “ethnic” white working-class Catholics in Chicago.

    Interestingly, our most recent and current, bishops in Southern IL are black and from Chicago. Abp. Gregory, now in Atlanta (and facing prostrate surgery) has said he was a convert. His parents sent him to the parochial schools for the education. He chose the faith as well. I don’t know if Bp. Braxton was similarly a convert, or was raised from infancy in the faith.

    Not that I have much technical or personal knowledge, but here I go…I don’t see much incentive for blacks to become Catholic when the black Christian churches are also providing political activism & racial cohesion, and meeting other nonreligious “needs” and interests—the same way white (or nonracial) mega-churches are. There’s a lot of separatism chosen by blacks today–for a couple of decades now. [eg, there are Black Student Unions at colleges. Can you imagine a White Student Union?] They can’t have that unique separatism in a multi-racial, universal Roman Catholic Church.

    All that said, there is a thriving, though much smaller than a few decades ago, black Catholic community in East St. Louis, IL. Many parishes in ESTL have closed and combined. [There also used to be white Catholics in ESTL a few generations ago.]

  • Roberto Rivera

    Mark, as your point about the Diocese of Arlington suggested, I wonder to what extent the problem is localized — i.e., is the “grim economic reality” mostly a problem of inner-city Catholic schools?

    If that’s the case, then I would suggest that part of the answer lies in the increased “suburbanization” of the Black middle class. In places like D.C. middle-class African Americans have largely moved to the suburbs, especially P.G. county. These are the same families who, a generation or two before would have sent their Protestant children to parochial schools as an alternative to the public schools. Now, their kids attend suburban public schools.

    Recent Hispanics arrivals, because they are largely Catholic and because they have not made the move to the suburbs, send their kids to Catholic schools.

  • Lannie Byrd

    The Catholic Diocese of Memphis has reopened nine inner city schools as part of an effort to improve education in the inner city. These Jubilee Schools are funded through the Catholic Memphis Urban Schools Trust and other charitable foundations.

  • John L. Hoh, Jr.

    You might also want to read a piece in Saturdays Milwaukee Journal Sentinel which seems to tie in nicely with this piece.

    Human diversity enriching, she says
    Posted: Nov. 2, 2007
    Sister Jamie T. Phelps looked with concern at the closings of Catholic parishes and schools in central cities across America, even before the priest shortage accelerated closings in urban, suburban and rural areas.


    Buy a link hereShe has seen religious orders discourage black applicants by expecting them to conform culturally without understanding their differences.

    And she has difficulty finding solid research on how many black American Catholics there are.

    To her, those are signs that the church still must deal with institutionalized racism. That was part of the message she was scheduled to bring Friday night to more than 2,000 members of Call to Action at the Catholic reform group’s national conference at Milwaukee’s Midwest Airlines Center.

    The link a href=”″>. The reporter either asks some very arcing softball questions or simply used a suggeted list of questions provided with a press kit.

  • Hank

    It is an old question. Gleaning from articles read over the years and conversations African American friends.

    As I understand local history, in the 1940’s and 1950’s as a neighborhood moved from ethnic white to African American enough African Americans converted to keep the parishes open. This stopped sometime in the mid 1960’s

    Reasons I have heard for the change.

    The general situation in the sixties.

    The reforms of Vatican II (as implemented in the US) did not sit well in this community.

    People at the diocesan level felt that importing features of African American worship styles would be culturally effective, whereas the people who had converted often had intentionally left that environment.

    A decline in the emphasis on evangelization.
    I think this is important, “left” of the church thinks they invented programs to help the poor and evangelization first requires meeting material needs. (Reaching down to help the poor.) Prior to that material assistance and evangelization were equally important. (Reaching across to help our brothers) The new approach often comes across as we are glad to help but we don’t want you in our club.

    The Catholic schools are seen as high quality generic Christian schools but there is little perception of an invitation to join the Church.

  • Mike Drabik

    I agree with the author of this article. I am from Toledo, Ohio. Our public school system is the pits. For example, 6 of our 7 high schools have been officially declared as ‘drop-out factories’. Most of those are attended by black students.

    Most of our inner-city Catholic schools were built by immigrants in the early part of the 20th century. They are now being heavily used by the local black population. NONE of them ever convert or hardly convert to the Catholic faith. I believe that these schools are being used as a refuge from the public school system. And with the allowance of government vouchers it certainly allows that. Indeed it has been asserted that the Catholic school officials here are deliberately encouraging inner-city parents to exaggerate the direness of their financial situation so that more money from the State of Ohio can be applied to vouchers.

    Catholic schools were built to educate Catholic children in the Catholic faith and to give Catholic children the tools to be successful in life, not to be a haven for those fleeing the public schools.

    Black parents need to understand that if they want to send their kids to Catholic schools that their children WILL be required to accept the full treatment of the same – including indoctrination in the Catholic faith. If black parents don’t like or want that – let them go elsewhere. Or else – let the schools be totally secularized and without the hard earned monies of Catholics being used to subsidize the same.

  • Harris

    The alternate view to that of Mr Drabik, is to see different faith communities as also being differently gifted. Is Catholic education only a gift to Catholics, or to the whole Christian community? Founders of religious schools often face this dilemma when the underlying or initial population changes; the school is now a servant for other communities. For instance, in the Reconstruction Period, the Presbyterians ran a series of schools across the South, initially to create a Presbyterian church. As the social reality sank in, they saw that their role was increasingly that of supporting a Black emerging middle class, the teachers and doctors and leaders who would otherwise be in worship at the local Baptist church.

    Serving others in this capacity can be another honorable response to gifts.

  • Mike Drabik

    We are not living the Reconstruction period. I have no issue with assisting minorities receiving the education needed to improve themselves. What I object to is the Catholic people NOT be fully being advised and informed as to what their schools have been turned into and what they are being used for.

    To continue, for example, to operate bake sales in the back of my parish church on Sundays or to run ‘pizza nights’ with the funds to going the ‘support’ of the parish school so that we can continue to give kids a Catholic education when in fact many of the students are not required to do so smacks to me of hoodwinking people.

    Tell the people – with no layer of veneer – what they are truly paying for when they put down fifty cents for that home baked cookie or five dollars for a coffee cake ‘just like grandma used to make’. And especially tell them as they put in the money in the collection basket to keep the school building in a good state of repair.

    Serving others in that capacity???!! Many of my neighbors and fellow parishioners don’t even know that they are serving in that capacity!!

    Perhaps it can be said what they don’t know won’t hurt them. Better to say if they do know some of them just might feel used and might NOT put down that fifty cents or that five dollars or withhold monies from the collection basket.

    Yes, some folks in my parish are deeply prejudiced against minorities. I had a neighbor, an old son of Polish immigrants who recently died. He quite frankly hated Blacks. When he talked to me about the rapidly changing demographics in our neighborhood he made frequent use of the ‘N’ word. I objected and told him we needed to live in peace and they are just like us – human beings with needs. His word was – let’em live in peace and get their needs met somewhere else.

    Yet, there he was on Sunday, slapping down the fifty cents for the cookie or seventy-five cents for the cupcake. Indeed his wife, a granny type and who had similar feelings regarding her Black neighbors, made it a habit to personally bake the coffee cakes which were sold at these bake sales.

    Without reference to the parish school’s population now composed of many non-Catholic minority students whose parents have no interest in the Catholic faith I asked him once why he bought items at the bake sale and why his wife continued to bake coffee cakes. “For the school kids so they can keep learning the faith and to keep OUR Catholic school (the one where he was educated too) open,” was his reply.

    I decided not to disabuse him of his reverie.

    My point is – let Catholics do this “service” for others with deliberateness – not with eyes half closed or winking. If some should outright stop giving in response to that – for whatever reason – that’s the price that must be paid as ‘the social reality sinks in’.

    Call an ace an ace for the Catholic people and accept the benefits AND consequences of doing that – NOW not in ten or twenty years.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    Mark is on to something. I have said for years that the main reason Catholic schools are declining is because we aren’t reproducing ourselves due to birth control and abortion (Pope Paul VI was a prophet).

    However, not only are schools in decline, so are parishes. Look at the number of parishes in large northern cities that are being closed and all the stories about bishops having to rearrange their dioceses. To the article, they all blame changing demographics and the reporters go along with it, failing to challenge the bishops on a basic fact — the Catholic faith is a missionary faith, even here in the U.S.

    In other words, it has absolutely nothing to do with changing demos and everything to do with a failure to evangelize, and the bishops are the ones who are failing to lead on that account.

    If a Polish sausage maker in Newark, NJ, were to move to a suburb, that would be understandable since many Poles have moved to the ‘burbs. But for Catholic bishops to make the same claim is nonsense. How did the Poles or Irish or French or anyone else become Catholic in the first place? By missionary preaching and evangelization.

    Their job is actually 50% easier because the world is coming to the U.S. — we only have to sit still and wait for them to come to us and then we can preach the Gospel in love. But, oh no, that would be imposing our values onto someone else and we can’t do that, can we?

    And we wonder why no one pays attention to anything the bishops say.