NYTs enters Baltimore schools war

Most great stories feature a compelling good guy and a nasty bad guy, the kind of villain that likes to tear down good people and places. It also helps if the story includes some giant, transcendent symbol that is in danger of being destroyed.

Well, the New York Times has jumped into the ongoing battle here in Baltimore between the Catholic archdiocese and the locals who want to make another attempt to save one of the city’s most famous field of dreams (and memories). Yes, this story has a New York angle, and it’s a baseball angle, too.

The headline: “A Fight to Save the House That Built Ruth.”

BALTIMORE – The hardscrabble field where George Herman Ruth Jr. learned baseball from a Xaverian brother is now a lovingly landscaped diamond. The little trees that he saw when he looked uphill from the field have grown into tall, graceful oaks. And the concrete fine arts building where he was taught shirt making in tailoring classes is intact but renovated.

Ruth would recognize what became of St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys, although the stone wall that gave it the look of a grim fortress no longer surrounds it and home plate is just about where center field once was. But this essential part of Ruth’s history — a place where the slogan the House That Built Ruth adorns the back of the baseball team’s jerseys — could soon be demolished in much the same way as the old Yankee Stadium, now a crumbled wreck in the Bronx.

The school that was once St. Mary’s doesn’t exist anymore, but the site has, for nearly half a century, been home to a legendary institution in Baltimore athletics — Cardinal Gibbons School.

Now, there is a bad guy who wants to tear that down. Why?

Last month, the Archdiocese of Baltimore said that Gibbons and 12 other schools would close in June because of falling enrollment, rising costs and financial problems exacerbated by the recession. Nationally, 1,603 parochial schools have closed or consolidated since 2000, leaving 7,094, according to the National Catholic Educational Association.

Justin Fratantuono, a junior on the baseball team, said that after learning on March 3 about the archdiocese’s decision to close the school, he cried. “We marched to the archdiocese building to protest in a very respectful way,” he said, “but the archdiocese ignored us.”

It’s worse than that, according to the school’s leaders.

Board members say the school balanced its budget as the archdiocese requested. … The board is hoping to raise the millions of dollars necessary to buy the property and turn it into a Catholic school that would be independent of the archdiocese. After initial confidence that the archdiocese was open to such a plan, that door slammed shut. Instead, board members fear that the valuable land, which is across the street from a sprawling hospital complex and about a half-mile from Interstate 95, will be sold to a developer.

“They’ve stacked the deck against us,” said Wayne McDowell, a board member who graduated in 1967 and is considering wearing a sign on the back of his jacket that says, “Save Cardinal Gibbons, Fire the Archbishop,” and starting a radio ad campaign to force O’Brien to negotiate. “My faith is being tested. … I can’t believe this is my archdiocese doing this.”

At this point in the story the bad guy chooses to sends in his proxy, providing a mere PR face as the only balancing voice in this Times report:

… (A) spokesman, Sean Caine, said that Gibbons was no longer viable as a Catholic school. He said that enrollment was down to less than one-third of its capacity, or 297 students, during its first school year since the diocese removed the sixth and seventh grades, that it had nearly $4 million in deferred maintenance, that it had fallen behind on pension payments, and that it had been hurt by parents unable to keep up with tuition bills.

“Academically, we’ve just run out of time,” Caine said.

The story’s emphasis on the value of the land is interesting and totally valid. It is possible that, in economic hard times made worse by scandal, the church is trying to cut operating costs and turn some struggling schools into assets that can be used elsewhere — such as schools with large student bodies.

The rest of the story returns to its focus on the Ruth angle. No, the Times does not suggest that the archbishop faces a new “curse of the Bambino” in the present tense or on judgement day.

So once again, we face a familiar question: Where did the Catholic students go? Many Catholics will also want to ask a related question: Where did the priests, brothers and nuns go who commitment (and virtually non-existant salaries) once made these schools so effective?

The Times has no interest in these questions, which are rooted in religion, not real estate.

I have more questions where those came from. Did inner-city Catholic students actually move to the suburbs or is that factor overrated? How healthy are the parishes that feed Gibbons and other schools that are closing? What percentage of the students in the closing schools are Catholic?

More questions: How many traditional Catholics have turned to home-schooling? How many “vocations” to religious orders and the priesthood have come from these declining schools in recent decades? Are some schools thriving while others decline? What are the trends on both sides of that equation? Is there any way to know if the school would be closing if it was full, especially if it was full of Catholic students?

Sorry to digress. My questions have nothing to do with the the story that the Times team is telling. My bad.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry

    Sorry to digress. My questions have nothing to do with the the story that the Times team is telling. My bad.

    So you’re criticizing them for a story they did not tell. Opening that door, I have a very, very long list of stories that the media should be covering but is not.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    I was being sarcastic. Of course I think that religion has something to do with the decline of religious schools and religious orders.

  • MikeL

    “My faith is being tested. … I can’t believe this is my archdiocese doing this.”

    This quote may represent, unintentionally, the key to all the questions you raised:

    So once again, we face a familiar question: Where did the Catholic students go? Many Catholics will also want to ask a related question: Where did the priests, brothers and nuns go who commitment (and virtually non-existant salaries) once made these schools so effective?

  • dalea

    Why are RC schools required to be self funded? It would seem to me that a major portion of the school should be considered an investment in future parishioners. And that the funding should be an obligation of the whole church, not simply of a struggling parish. Reporting here needs to better explain the fiduciary structure of the RCC.

  • Jerry

    Terry, I do tend to not catch sarcasm and irony in print. Maybe that’s a shortcoming of mine.

  • Julia


    You raise an interesting area of inquiry.

    It’s more than the fiduciary structure of the Catholic Church (we don’t like using initials), which varies from parish to parish, diocese to diocese, and country to country.

    At the parish level, very few schools are run as a parish project. Just as folks with no school-age children protest increased taxes that fund public schools, the folks with no kids in a parish school would want to keep the money spent on education unrealistically low. People have to pay taxes, but they can refuse to voluntarily fund private education of other people’s children.

    Also tax ramifications can get tricky. A person can deduct donations to a non-profit organization like a church. But you can’t deduct any portion of that donation that goes to goods or services the donor receives in return. So, a parishioner without school-age kids can entirely deduct a $50,000 donation, but a parishioner with student children donating the same amount cannot deduct the value of the schooling. Too much help from the parish for the school could trigger complex tax problems.

    At the diocesan level, in poorer areas there is some financial support as the money is available. But where parents of students are making donations to the parish which passes some of those funds along to the diocese, tax problems can be triggered.

    It would be interesting to know how the IRS treats scholarships to private elementary and high schools, religious and non-religious ones. Are parents supposed to declare the value of the scholarship as income on their taxes?

  • http://bendingthetwigs.blogspot.com Crimson Wife

    How many Catholic schools are there in the U.S. that are not affiliated with their local diocese? Do they charge similar tuition to the parochial schools on average or do they charge more?

    I know of 3 independent Catholic schools in the greater metro area where I live. One is basically a chi chi prep school that is only nominally Catholic. It charges quite a bit more than the diocese schools ($31.7k for high school vs. $10-15k). The other 2 are small orthodox/traditional schools and charge reasonable tuition that is similar to what the diocese schools charge. One is subsidized by the Independent Study Program and curricula it sells to homeschoolers. Not sure how the other one gets by without financial support from the diocese.

  • http://bendingthetwigs.blogspot.com Crimson Wife

    Also, how many Catholics in the U.S. are homeschooling? I’ve never seen any good estimates for what percent of the estimated 2 million homeschoolers in the U.S. are Catholic. The overall U.S. population is about 25% Catholic. My sense is that Catholics are somewhat underrepresented among homeschoolers but is the percentage Catholic 10%? More? Less?

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Since the spin on this story is clearly “What are those bad and nasty Catholic leaders doing now?” for comparison I would like to know if the Times also went into high dudgeon over the destruction of The Yankee Stadium that was THE House that Ruth Built or is their dudgeon reserved for people they like to bludgeon.

  • dalea

    I feel like I am really getting old as I can remember when Catholic schools were free or had a nominal tuition. It would be helpful to see a story on the changing role of the parish in financing schools. Until then, I am left to wonder about this whole situation.

  • Julia

    Crimson Wife and dalea:

    Dioceses never have their own sisters or brothers in the same way they have diocesan priests. All sisters and brothers belong to a religious order. Virtually all grade schools are connected to parishes, but high school typically are or were run by religious orders and were approved by the diocese but not a diocesan project. However, in very big cities there are and were some diocesan HSs.

    In the very early 1900s my Catholic girls HS began as a boarding school run by a religious order of sisters, then it became a day school. The local Catholic boys HS was never a boarding school and it was run by a religious order of mostly brothers and some priests.

    In both schools there was always a way to work off the tuition – modest compared to today’s tuition. For the past 20 years or so, my old HS has been a state facility for drug addicted mothers and their children. The boys HS is now a state prison. No kidding. This was in East St. Louis; and both HSs were heavily subsidized for as long as the religious orders could manage. Then the girls school was closed by the religious order and the diocese ran a combined school for boys and girls in the boys’ HS building that was kept open as long as possible, with very heavy diocesan subsidies.

    The adjoining town had the same situation, but the girls HS is now an office building and the boy’s HS is a parking lot. A new diocesan Catholic HS has boys and girls with very few sisters, some missionary brothers and diocesan priests to teach some religion classes. It’s way more expensive, and has much lower enrollment with a large number of scholarships.

    Before the sisters and brothers mostly departed, the Catholic schools were thought to be better than the public schools. This is no longer true except for inner city schools and expensive prep school run by orders like the Jesuits. That’s another reason the schools are closing. Regular Catholic schools are not better – tax support is the reason. Expensive things like computer labs, athletic facilities and music programs are much better supported in most public schools.

    That was my son and daughter-in-law’s reasoning for making the tough choice for their child. The tuition for Catholic school is not a problem, unlike her father who had worked extra to put his kids through Catholic school. They opted for the public school because of the great computer and music programs. Every year the Catholic school (now with no nuns at all)in a village with a German Catholic heritage has fewer students; on the other hand, the village just built a brand new public school for K – 3rd grade to accommodate the growing population.

    It seems there are many reasons why the Catholic schools are consolidating and closing that vary depending on the location.

    Nobody has mentioned two other related possible reasons: Catholics are no long considered strange by public school classmates, and the public schools no longer promote a civil Protestant religion with the favorite text in reading class being the King James Bible. These were the reasons underlying the establishment of Catholic schools in the first place back in the No-Nothing era.

  • JV

    Interesting story. My son graduated from Gibbons last year,
    after spending six years there. When he started, they said they were turning it around. The graduating class was 62 young men the first year he attended. In 2009 it was 69. The school has the capacity for around 900 students and only has 297. Graduation rate is around 70-75%. Every year I wondered whether it would close. I wonder how I could pick up on that, but the board and other parents didn’t. The school was several million dollars in debt to the Archdiocese. They managed to balance the budget for one year, mostly by cutting staff as far as I can tell. A blue ribbon commission was set up about 16 months ago. Every school in the Archdiocese was visited and evaluated on four criteria, three of which I believe were Academic excellence, Catholic identity and long term viability based on demographics. Maybe being located on the same site where Babe Ruth went to school* helped them with the fourth criteria? Otherwise, I’m not sure what the Times articles is about.

    *not the same school, we’re just talking real estate here; the school Ruth attended was run by the Xavieran Brothers, who still run a 900 student boy’s high school about 2 miles away. That school is a receiving school for some of the boys at Gibbons who are being consolidated into other high schools in the Archdiocese.