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.
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.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.”