Aside from private Catholic schools, there are 35 Catholic primary schools and 8 Catholic high schools located in the Diocese of Trenton. At the present moment, most of the Catholic high schools are stable. As many as 10 of the 35 primary schools are dealing with some risk factors that could impact their sustainability.
When I was appointed Coadjutor Bishop of the Diocese of Trenton in 2010, the Apostolic Nuncio at the time, the late Archbishop Pietro Sambi, cautioned me that I would need to confront difficulties facing Catholic education here. Given my background, I felt prepared to study the situation objectively.
After becoming Diocesan Bishop, I announced that no schools would close in my first year, a promise I kept. At the same time, I stated that I could not guarantee that closures would never happen. I dedicated my first “annual appeal” to Catholic education.
In my second year, I again announced that no schools would close that year, a promise I kept. I also provided a similar caution as before, going forward.
In 2012, I established a School Sustainability Commission composed of experts, educators and parents, with a mandate to determine what was needed to keep Catholic primary schools open and sustainable. The commission identified 10 schools that it considered “at risk” due to changing demographics, steadily declining enrollments and resulting increased financial burdens on parishes.
Its report and recommendations were presented to me in May 2013. One pastor, however, before the report was finalized, advised me that his parish could not keep its grammar school open. I accepted that decision, as did he, with great sadness. No one, especially parents, wanted to see the school close.
I shared the commission’s final report and recommendations with pastors and principals involved soon after receiving it. I wrote about it in The Monitor. In Fall 2013, I visited nine of the 10 “at risk” Catholic primary schools along with diocesan officials, meeting with the pastors and principals concerned. Diocesan officials visited the one site I could not visit.
During these candid meetings, we reviewed the commission’s findings very carefully and made strategic recommendations for a third year of these Catholic primary schools remaining open. Pastors and principals were asked to be frank and realistic with parishes so that there would be “no surprises” if any parish had to close its school.
Some progress in reversing downward trends was made during the past year but not in every school. This present year, the Diocese has committed over $1.6 million from diocesan funds to help defray expenses in several “at risk” Catholic primary schools. With annual declining enrollments and no realistic indications of reversal – despite valiant efforts – parishes cannot afford such substantial subsidies without drawing from their reserves. The Diocese cannot either.
No one doubts or undervalues the contributions made by our Catholic primary schools. Theirs is a wonderful history with undeniable results evident all around us in the Church. For that we all can and should be grateful to God, to incredibly dedicated pastors, faculty and staffs and to parents who have made heroic sacrifices.
But, as enrollments sadly continue to decline in some areas, showing no signs of changing for the better, and as costs continue to escalate, the burden on some parishes has become an insurmountable obstacle to sustainability. What has been happening in the parishes and schools of archdioceses and dioceses all over the country for years now is happening in some of the parishes and schools of our Diocese, despite our best efforts to reverse the trend wherever possible.
Although some of our parishes must close their Catholic primary schools, many others remain sustainable and vibrant. We need to rally behind and support them. We need to continue to foster and promote strong enrollments there. And, as Catholics always have, we need to make the sacrifices required to keep Catholic education alive as a vital force for the transmission of our Catholic faith while determining new ways to share that faith in a rapidly changing Church.
Respectfully in our Lord,
Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M.