The faithful departed

Catholic schools across the state are struggling to remain afloat

It wasn’t that long ago that the Roman Catholic church was a spiritual, political, and social force in Massachusetts. With the influx of European immigrants beginning in the 19th century, Catholic churches peppered the landscape, with even smaller towns having multiple parishes.

But since the turn of the century – and the bomb that was the clergy sex abuse scandal – the church has been diminishing in both size and clout. Not only are churches continuing to be closed or merged, Catholic schools are shutting their doors as well, forcing parents to either send their children to public schools where they don’t get the type of education the adults want or find the money for other private schools.

The Boston Archdiocese has closed or merged nearly 150 parishes since 2001. Declining attendance, much of it due to backlash against the way the church handled the clergy sex abuse scandal, resulted in a dramatic drop in revenues to sustain the churches. Cardinal Sean O’Malley, a confidant of Pope Francis, has announced a plan to form collaboratives between churches that will trigger moving and sharing priests among remaining distressed churches.

In Fall River, Bishop Edgar de Cunha announced the diocese is launching a review of all 82 of its parishes with some church closings likely. In many of those parishes that will close are schools where students will be forced to either find seats in other Catholic schools or return to the city’s public classrooms.

The Fall River Diocese, which stretches from North Attleboro to Provincetown, has 17 elementary schools, three high schools, and two schools with grades 7 through 12. But the diocese, which has about 6,400 students, is already beginning the transition.

Officials announced the elimination of grades 5 through 8 at the St. Margaret Regional School in Buzzards Bay. Those students whose grades are being cut have been given the option of attending another diocesan school in Hyannis, a long ride especially come late spring and early fall, due to Cape traffic, for parents who will have to transport their children to the schools.

But in a 2016 report that foresaw much of this, the reasoning for consolidation could be applied to all Catholic schools.

“The move from religious to lay teachers and administrators has added to (diocesan) school costs,” says the report. “As a result, many schools are struggling financially. Increasingly, the struggle to keep tuition within reach of families while providing a high-quality education and compensating staff at a just and competitive level is a fundamental challenge to the business model of Catholic education.”

Boston Archdiocese officials are feeling the same pressure. Marian High School in Framingham, thriving for decades since it opened its doors more than 60 years ago, announced it will be closing at the end of the school year because of declining enrollment. The incoming freshman class would have had just 16 members, which would have brought the school’s enrollment down to a projected 185, down from 221 this year. At its peak, Marian had more than 900 students with waiting lists from area towns.

Meet the Author

Jack Sullivan

Senior Investigative Reporter, CommonWealth

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is a veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

A Boston native, Jack has lived in Massachusetts all his life. He was a major in English and history with a minor in political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A father and grandfather, he lives in Plymouth with his wife, Susan.

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is a veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

A Boston native, Jack has lived in Massachusetts all his life. He was a major in English and history with a minor in political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A father and grandfather, he lives in Plymouth with his wife, Susan.

Church officials and priests recognize that diminishment of the faithful and say their plan moving forward is to recapture that tie the church had with parishioners for centuries.

“In the church, we call it the new evangelization — an outreach to those Catholics who have fallen away or are disconnected with the life of the church,” says Rev. Paul Soper, the Boston Archdiocese’s secretary for evangelization and discipleship and director of pastoral planning. “If we only stick with what we’re comfortable with, we’re much more unlikely to think beyond the concepts we are comfortable with.”