A new school year has begun. But not for all. You may have read in the September 5 New York Times article that this summer throughout the United States some 150 Catholic schools were forced to close.
In the New York archdiocese 20 schools did not open their doors. Their halls are silent, no joyful din of children. In Boston, the archdiocese has had to close nine schools so far, with about two dozen others are on a “watch list”. The Catholic school system has been facing overwhelming challenges for decades. Enrollment for the 2019-20 school year was at 1.7 million, down from five million fifty years ago. Many hard-working, lower- and middle-class families simply cannot afford to pay public school taxes and Catholic school tuition. This summer in many cases financial difficulties could not be overcome with Covid-19 becoming the nail in the coffin.
Catholic schools in America formed generations of Christians and citizens. They gave a social lift to tens of millions of immigrants, their children, and grandchildren. Personally, I am grateful for my educational experience in Catholic elementary and secondary schools and institutions of higher learning. I have dedicated most of my adult life to the development of a Catholic University in Ukraine that has become a model for the country’s system of higher education.
For more than 150 years Catholic schools in the US have been teaching children the most important things: about God, about a good healthy way to live, about reading, writing, and arithmetic. These schools were the fruit of great generosity. Seven generations of clergy, religious, and parents sacrificed selflessly to educate children in the faith for life.
Pastors and parishes did everything they could to build, develop, and maintain schools at our parishes. Thanks to the Basilian Sisters, Sisters of Mary Immaculate, and Missionary Sisters the Ukrainian Catholic Church in the United States for decades had a formidable network of some 35 schools. Today they are few — both sisters and schools. The remaining six schools in our four eparchies continue to witness and render impressive service. They teach about God and His way. They are safe and unpretentious, sincere and welcoming.
A school cannot replace what properly should be offered by parents. If parents at home don’t make prayer a priority in the morning and evening it is difficult for a Catholic school to make it a priority for a child during the day. Yet, our teachers, pastors, school directors, and sisters do all that they can to keep the schools open and Catholic.
One fact that is hardly recognized in our community is the prophetic witness that our schools demonstrate regarding one of the most burning issues in American society, namely racism.
Our country seems to be hopelessly divided. Catholic schools offer us hope. This is the case with Ukrainian Catholic educational institutions. Let me give three examples I have been privileged to observe personally during my first year of service.
In New York, at St George’s Academy, a school associated with St George’s Church, one of our biggest parishes in America, last year’s valedictorian and salutatorian both represented minorities: the valedictorian — Precious Mann an African American and salutatorian — Alexandra Pabon, a young Hispanic woman. Last year's enrollment at the Academy was 31% Latino, 27% African American, and 2% Asian. Many minority students are recipients of generous financial aid and scholarships.
In all Catholic schools the expenses are only partially covered by tuition. St George’s parish, the Basilan Fathers (for decades the Basilian Sisters) and most importantly the parishioners support the school thereby attesting to the possibility and promise of racial unity in the Big Apple. The harmony was particularly striking during a November Holodomor concert when together the diverse students of the Academy burst into song — in English, Ukrainian, and Spanish.
In the Philadelphia Archeparchy, the Perth Amboy Assumption Catholic school, one of only two left in the city, is generously underwritten by the parishioners and by the zealous activity of the pastor, Father Ivan Turyk. Visiting this school during the Open House Sunday before the pandemic set in I was moved by the warmth of the atmosphere, the humanity of the teachers, and the diversity of families visiting our unsung teaching establishment. Out of 156 students enrolled for this academic year, 69 are Hispanic, 17 African American, and seven of Indian background. In a school subsidized by a Ukrainian Catholic parish over 60% of the students represent racial minorities.
Quietly, our schools do essential everyday work — the most important work in America — witnessing to God, teaching and raising children to be responsible moral citizens, and demonstrating without fanfare that different races and different ethnicities can live, learn, and thrive together.
In 1947 the Sisters of St. Basil the Great in Philadelphia founded Manor College. For decades a junior college, Manor recently became a four-year institution of higher learning. Under the leadership of its visionary president Dr. Jonathan Perі it will soon become a university. A college founded by the Sisters, in the womb of the Ukrainian Catholic Church in Philadelphia, Manor today serves a student population in which 61% are racial and ethnic minorities. 65% of the students are first-generation in college and 80 to 85% work while they are in college.
Since I arrived in June of last year, every time I visit Manor College, I am truly inspired. Manor is moving boldly in the right direction. It is possible to develop Catholic education in America, although it is difficult and requires outstanding leadership and focused commitment of us all. It is possible to witness to the Gospel in this secularized and polarized world. It is possible to live in mutual uplifting racial harmony.
There is no going back to the past. Although our outlook cannot be guided by nostalgia, the sacrifice and service of our predecessors should offer not only inspiration but insight for meeting the challenges of the future.
Serene conviction in God’s providence opens the door for creativity. God is alive in us, in the world. We should not fear or shrink away from the call to witness the Gospel, especially for our children. We are summoned to let the Lord show us the way through the labyrinth of today’s trials—moral, cultural, social, political, and economic. The history of our Church, its Cross and Resurrection, the witness of the martyrs demonstrates clearly that there is no situation, no matter how difficult, that cannot be lived fruitfully with God, in grace, in a spiritual way. The powers that be proclaimed our Church in Ukraine to be dead. Yet it is fully alive!
Without doubt, there are factors not in our control that have led to the closing of our schools. A tradition of hostility regarding Catholic schools has a long history in America. All Catholics who send their children to Catholic schools pay twice for their education. There are fine public schools in our country with outstanding teachers and dedicated administrators, but too often quality is a function of the socio-economic status of the neighborhood. Children are subject to these inequalities. In too many places public schools—at best agnostic regarding faith in God—have failed their pupils, but parents often have no choice. Not all can pay twice. Even if a Christian upbringing is a top priority for Catholic families. The lack of appreciation for the contribution of the Catholic schools to American society in government circles reflected in legislation has been more lethal to the existence of Catholic schools than any pandemic.
In the Ukrainian Catholic Church bishops, clergy, and laity need to do serious soul searching regarding the evangelization of the faithful, the spiritual engagement of students, and the institutional priorities regarding infrastructure. We need to return to the basics. Maybe this means simplifying and downsizing so that we can be spiritually nimble. Clearly, we need to have more confidence that this is God’s Church, that He is the source of life, and that every authentic sacrifice is lifegiving. Without confronting the world with the joy of the Gospel and challenging a culture of comfort and conformity we cannot be spiritually fruitful. The future of not only our schools depends on it.
As a new school year starts and Catholic schools courageously struggle through the challenges of the times, I wish to thank and encourage our pastors and sisters, teachers, students, and those who support the Catholic school system. Together you witness prophetically both to the Gospel and to the possibilities of our country. Possibilities that need heroes, committed followers of Christ, humble servants, generous and responsible citizens who are not guided by inflammatory or ideological rhetoric, and know a good thing when they see it. Know it, support it, and make it happen.