Bishop Says Catholic Schools Are Not the First Priority

Deal W. Hudson
December 20, 2007

Bishops are closing Catholic schools all over the country because they can no longer afford them. But this is the story of one school being closed that doesn’t cost the bishops a penny.

Seventy-five-year-old St. Augustine Catholic School is the only Catholic school in Ocean City, New Jersey. Supported by three local parishes, St. Augustine’s serves 112 students and is funded completely by the local parishes, parents, and community supporters.

Yet on November 29, Bishop Joseph A. Galante (Camden) announced that St. Augustine’s will be closed at the end of this academic year. Seven other diocesan elementary schools will be “clustered” with existing schools.

“We do this, and we do it now because we must,” Galante wrote in a statement. “With fewer students, the school has become a financial drain on local parishes,” he said.

St. Augustine’s receives 25 percent of these parishes’ budgets, according to Andrew Walton, director of communications for the Camden diocese.

“With 4,000 families in these parishes and only 112 students it’s a matter of justice in the use of resources,” explained Walton.

As reported in the Philadephia Inquirer, Bishop Galante’s new plan means diocesan schools will not be allowed to support themselves. Parishes will send a percentage of their budget to a central fund, which will be distributed by the bishop to all the schools in the diocese.

But Harry Vanderslice and parents from all three parishes are fighting to keep the school open. Vanderslice attended St. Augustine’s, as do his children. “Why should our parish money supporting St. Augustine’s be given to the diocese so that it can support different schools? This is going to be a huge blow to the Catholic community in Ocean City.”

The impact predicted by Vanderslice on the three parishes supporting St. Augustine’s is ironic. The reorganization of the schools is part of Bishop Galante’s larger plan to increase the vitality of parish life, and adult spiritual formation in particular.

I asked Walton whether he agreed that Catholic schools often increase the number of active, participating parents and children in parishes. “Parishes should give vitality to Catholic schools and not vice versa,” said Walton. “If parents are sending their children to Catholic schools and not attending Mass themselves, they are sending a terrible message.”

When I asked him whether educating children in their faith shouldn’t be the top priority of the parishes, he said, “No, Bishop Galante has met with every parish in this diocese and built a consensus that parish life itself must be reinvigorated.”

Vanderslice and his ad hoc committee to save St. Augustine’s met with Bishop Galante on December 18. They presented their argument for keeping the school open: In addition to financial self-sufficiency, they argued that parents whose children are presently enrolled in St. Augustine’s would very likely enroll them in public school.

Galante responded, saying, “I am concerned about the faith of the parents.”

Was the bishop implying that parents who send their children to public schools have a defective faith? Walton countered, “Not at all; the bishop simply wants to shift the resources of the diocese toward strengthening parish life, which means the spiritual formation of adults as well as children.”

At the end of the meeting, Bishop Galante agreed to reconsider the decision to close St. Augustine’s.

If St. Augustine’s is closed, the students would have the option of attending St. Joseph’s School, three miles away and off the island where Ocean City is located. But there aren’t enough slots at St. Joseph’s to take all the students from Ocean City. Another Catholic school, Bishop McHugh, has the room, but it’s 20 miles away – a 90-minute drive in traffic, according to Vanderslice. Ocean City itself is a small, tightly knit community of just over 16,000 local inhabitants (that number swells to 150,000 on summer weekends).

Vanderslice is hoping for a change of heart. Bishop Galante has already made an exception to his mandate: A few days after the news about school closings, Bishop Galante announced that five schools in the inner city of Camden and Pennsauken would not be closed, in spite of the cost and the low number of students. Most of the operating costs would have to be raised from donors, inside and outside of the diocese. According to the Post-Courier, all the diocese’s urban schools will remain open, in spite of an 11 percent drop in enrollment since 2001.

Galante explained his decision at a press conference on Thursday. “We want to be able to do all that we can to educate the young people in the city,” he said. “They deserve as much of an opportunity to better their lives as any of our other young people do throughout the diocese.”

In other words, provision is being made for inner-city children so they can attend Catholic schools in their neighborhoods, but not the children of Ocean City.

The students in these inner-city schools are predominately non-Catholic. In keeping them open, the diocese clearly affirmed its commitment to the poor. But is it justifiable to deprive Catholic students of their school due to limited finances, while making special provision for non-Catholic students in the inner city?

As Vanderslice told me, “The closing of St. Augustine’s will reverberate through the generations of families who have gone there. Mothers, fathers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins are all connected by their experience at St. Augustine’s.”

Walton admits the closing will cause emotional trauma for the Catholic community of Ocean City. But he insists the number of Catholic children in Ocean City no longer warrants the expense.

“Because of real estate prices, most of the families have moved off the island,” said Walton. Vanderslice, who deals in real estate, says this is only partly true. “If the diocese gave us the go-ahead, we are absolutely sure we could get more students at St. Augustine’s. We already get many of our students from the adjacent city of Upper Township where real estate prices are still affordable.”

At bottom of this dispute is the clash of two visions about what lends vitality to parish life. For Vanderslice and his fellow parents, it is the maintenance of the focal point of the Catholic community, St. Augustine’s School. But Bishop Galante believes radical measures are needed to shake off the lethargy he found in his 100-plus parish visits.

Perhaps he will find an exception should be made – like that in urban Camden – from changes that will destabilize the Catholic community of Ocean City for years to come.

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