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Scores of U.S. Catholic schools face financial trouble; many closed in Brooklyn and Queens

June 16, 2020 David Crary Associated Press and Raanan Geberer Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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Catholic schools have faced tough times for years, but the pace of closures is accelerating dramatically amid economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, sparking heartbreak and anger in scores of affected communities.

“It’s not a pretty picture right now,” said Sister Dale McDonald, public policy director of the National Catholic Educational Association, which says about 100 schools have announced in recent weeks that they won’t reopen this fall.

McDonald fears that number could more than double in the coming months.

Most of the closures are occurring at the elementary level, but also on the list are a number of venerable and beloved high schools including some that produced some famous alumni.

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There’s been no official news from the Diocese of Brooklyn, which includes Brooklyn and Queens, but in the 1980s the Diocese had about 102 schools. By 2019, only 76 remained, according to an article that appeared in Bklyner last year.

Among schools closed by Catholic groups were two well-known Brooklyn Catholic schools, both of which closed in 2019: Bishop Kearney High School in Bensonhurst and St. Francis Xavier-Queen of All Saints in Clinton Hill. Bishop Kearney, a girls’ school, was built in 1961.

The closure of St. Francis Xavier-Queen of All Saints, a school that resulted from the merger of two other schools, was prompted by a 30 percent drop in enrollment, according to an article that appeared in the Brooklyn Eagle last year.

Among the other well-known Catholic schools in the Diocese that have closed include Mary Queen of Heaven in Mill Basin, which had $300,000 in debt; Our Lady of Guadalupe in Bensonhurst, which had a debt of $215,377 when it closed down; and St. Camillus Catholic Academy in Rockaway Park, Queens, which had only 106 students when it shut down.

Mary Queen of Heaven Catholic Academy in Mill Basin.

Nationwide, This year’s closures will reduce the number of Catholic K-12 schools in the United States to about 6,000, down from more than 11,000 in 1970, according to the National Catholic Education Association. Overall enrollment has plummeted from more than 5 million in the 1960s to about 1.7 million now.

“The loss of Catholic schools is a loss to America,” said Mary Pat Donoghue, executive director of the Catholic Education office of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The long-term enrollment decline has resulted from demographic changes, parents’ difficulty affording tuition and competition from public and other private schools, and actors related to the pandemic have only aggravated the problems, she added.

Donoghue said many families have recently lost jobs and feel they can no longer pay tuitions averaging nearly $5,000 for elementary schools and more than $11,000 for high schools. Meanwhile, parishes that operate many of the schools lost much of their weekly collections after in-person services were halted.

Another factor: Spring is the prime season for school fundraisers, and many of those events had to be canceled.

McDonald, of the National Catholic Education Association, said uncertainty is now a huge problem. School officials are unsure what social distancing requirements and financial circumstances they will face in the fall, while parents don’t know if their school will still be afloat.

“Superintendents want to know what they’re getting into,” McDonald said. “Parents don’t want to commit to what they don’t know. It’s a huge mess.”

Several of the recent closure announcements sparked community campaigns to try to save the schools.

In Baltimore, the May 5 announcement about the Institute of Notre Dame came without warning, angering students, parents and alumni, and forcing the 161 freshmen, sophomores and juniors currently enrolled to scramble to find spots elsewhere.

Dubbing itself Saving IND, an alumni-led group obtained hundreds of signatures on an online petition supporting efforts to keep the school open. School officials have discouraged the campaign, saying the closure plans are final to declining enrollment and the need for millions of dollars for building repairs and other costs.

According to the school’s official history, it provided shelter to Black people escaping slavery along the Underground Railroad and served as a medical facility during the Civil War and the 1918 flu pandemic.

“It taught us what we needed to learn academically, and it taught us values,” said Speaker of the U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who attended the school, in an interview with C-SPAN after the closure was announced by the School Sisters of Notre Dame. Pelosi’s mother also attended the school. “Hot chocolate after Mass, that was a thing I remember with great joy.”


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