The anguish and efficacy of Catholic school closings

JEAN MARBELLA

March 07, 2010|By Jean Marbella | jean.marbella@baltsun.com

The nun made me stand up at my desk in the fourth-grade classroom of Sacred Heart School and introduce myself.

I was the new kid, my family having recently moved from Chicago to one of its suburbs. Whatever I said is lost to the ages, along with the overwhelming, face-burning humiliation of a shy girl having to stand up and say something, anything, to a group of kids she didn't know.

What I should have said was: I'm Jean Marbella, and I'm from Immaculate Conception School.

That is how completely a Catholic school is a kid's world. It is your citizenship. To go from one to another can seem like moving to a different country.

Maybe it's like that for any fourth-grader, but I think there's something about the potent addition of religion and tradition, the nuns and the morning Masses, that makes a Catholic school embed itself in your DNA.

Or, who knows, maybe it's just the plaid skirts.

I was thinking about this long-ago year, 1965, because that was the peak of Catholic school enrollment, according to Baltimore Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien. It's been downhill every since, he said last week, and part of the reason he was closing 13 of the archdiocese's schools this June.

Looking at the list of the soon-to-be-shuttered schools gave me a pang, in part because two Sacred Hearts were on there. I noticed from the picture we ran on the front page of the paper on Thursday, of kids from Mother Mary Lange carrying home letters about their school's closing, the girls' plaid jumpers and saddle shoes are nearly identical to the ones I wore at their age.

But so much else has changed.

I guess it's true of all glory days - you only realize it was the golden era after it passes, not while it's going on. Back then, it was hard to imagine a day when some of the schools would be hurting for students; even at my small school there were a couple of homerooms for each grade.

Of course, most schools probably strained at the seams during that time, what with the baby boom moving through the education system. But for Catholics, with their particularly large families in those pre-birth control pill days, their schools got used to a steady supply of students as sibling after sibling marched through.

Even then, though, Catholic schools were on the path that led them to this moment, when declining enrollments and rising costs are forcing the closure of some schools. For one thing, the church already was losing much of its free, or at least cheap, labor.

With every school year, there were fewer and fewer nuns in my classrooms. Even in elementary school, many of the nuns already seemed ancient - although for as bent and arthritic and cloudy-eyed as they might have been, they missed almost no transgression and could chase down and collar any transgressor.

Meanwhile, the younger nuns grew less nun-ly: Their skirts got shorter, the veils disappeared and they did very of-the-era things such as play Simon and Garfunkel on their guitars, visit prisoners in jail and, in some cases, leave the sisterhood entirely. In fact, when one of them mysteriously left the school and apparently her religious order as well, we all decided, on the basis on nothing but our imaginations, that she had fallen in love with a prisoner and was going to marry him.

Today, nuns have all but vanished from most Catholic schools. Less than 5 percent of teachers at Catholic schools today are members of a religious order, compared to about 86 percent in 1950. Even more amazing to me was another stat: In Baltimore City, nearly 80 percent of the students at Catholic schools aren't Catholic.

With such a dramatic change in both student and staff makeup, the role and mission of the Catholic school isn't as clear as it was in the past. It still is to offer religious education as it always has, even if it's increasingly to those of another, if any, faith. It provides an alternative to the neighborhood public school, but then, so do charter and magnet schools.

For all the current and understandable tumult that the school closings have caused, this really seems more like a reorganization than a retreat. Students can transfer to schools just a couple of miles from the ones they currently attend and, with fewer schools but more of them filled closer to capacity, the cost of operating the system should be less onerous for the archdiocese.

And, surely, the nuns' most frequently threatened weapon, the permanent record, will follow the dispersed students wherever they land next year.

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