Saturday, June 25, 2011

Another School Closes

Yesterday’s New York Times featured the sad story of this week’s closing of St. Martin of Tours Elementary School in the Crotona neighborhood of the Bronx (one of who knows how many such closings around the couontry this year). Its 104 students will now disperse, and St. Martin’s 86 years of effective Catholic education for poor families – creating community amidst urban mayhem – will end. If this were an isolated story, it would certainly be sad. As yet another chapter in the ongoing story of the diminishing of Catholic education in the United States, it invites one to ponder the decline of what has been one of the greatest and most successful ministries of the Church in this country.

Exactly 50 years ago today, I graduated from 8th grade from a Catholic elementary school in another Bronx neighborhood. We had some 1400 students in our school at that time. We were often more than 50 students in a classroom, in a solidly built if (by today’s standards) somewhat limited pre-war building. In the winter, for example, the heat sometimes broke down (as it also sometimes did in the apartments where most of us lived), and we sat in class and did our work (fountain pens in hand) with our coats on. None of us really thought this was a problem. That’s how life was. The discipline was, I suppose, demanding by today’s standards. (Indeed, by today’s standards some - moved more by ideology than wisdom - might see it as too demanding). But again, that’s how life was. In other words, the experience in school was culturally coherent with the limited local world we knew outside, even while it tried to transcend that local world by preparing us to become part of the larger American society. We were basically a typical (for that time) blue-collar, working class, heavily “ethnic” neighborhood, aspiring to full “middle class” status, the ticket to the “American Dream” - a goal achieved perhaps even more successfully than anyone would then ever have anticipated and in no small measure due to Catholic education.

Of course, Catholic education was always (as it ought to be) first and foremost about forming us in the faith. The traumas of the last 50 years suggest that it may have been somewhat less successful with my generation in forming us in the faith for the long term than most might have expected in 1961. No one then could quite have foreseen the challenges the faith would soon face – not just externally but in the internal life of the Church as well. Even so, I personally suspect that faith and religious practice are probably still stronger among graduates of Catholic schools than among those who did not have that benefit. All of which only exacerbates the tragedy of the decline of Catholic education in the United States. On the one hand, the Church’s mission of service to the poor is diminished as this type of quality education becomes less and less available to the families that would benefit from it most. At the same time, the Church’s fundamental mission of evangelization likewise suffers as fewer families have access to the kind of community of faith-formation a school can create and sustain.

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