Cupich: Catholic schools challenged by changing society, financial pressure

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Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich said a changing world, and changing parish life, are presenting challenges to Catholic schools. | Esther Castillejo/For the Sun-Times

Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich said Tuesday that continuing challenges make finding the best way to consolidate Catholic schools more than necessary.

Speaking at a breakfast celebrating Catholic education Tuesday, Cupich acknowledged some of the challenges Catholic schools face in Chicago and emphasized the crucial role these schools have in the city.

Last October, the Archdiocese of Chicago announced its plan to close nine schools by the end of the school year — a move to help cut costs amid low enrollment, rising expenses and changing demographics.

The plan, proposed when Cardinal Francis George was still head of the Chicago archdiocese, affects about 1,280 elementary students and 229 employees, including 107 full-time teachers, the archdiocese said.

Cupich has upheld the plan, saying the inability of some schools to pay their bills has an impact in the diocese’s financial health.

“We’re limited in how much we’re able to absorb,” Cupich said after speaking to about 400 people at the Drake Hotel. ”We have to get our house in order, for the common good and for all of our schools.”

Although in the past, Catholic schools relied on parish-based subsidies and tuition for at least 20 percent of their expenses, according to the archdiocese, shifting demographics, low enrollment and increasing expenses have forced the archdiocese to subsidize the schools.

“Many times I think there is a system by which, if people can’t pay their bills and is unexpected, it’s a surprise. That’s why we had the huge deficit a couple of years ago of $40 million,” he said. “That’s just not sustainable.”

In an effort to assess other challenges Catholic education has in the city and some strategies to address those challenges, Cupich invited the principals of six schools on Chicago’s Northwest Side to meet with him and think about the issues they face. These schools have until mid-February to respond to the invitation, with the recommendations formulated at the meetings expected to be implemented starting in 2016.

“We let them know that it was part of the strategic plan that was adopted last year before I got here, and we wanted just to make sure that we followed through with that strategic plan,” Cupich said.

Asking for continued support and new partners for the archdiocese’s Caritas Scholarship Program and the Catholic Education Scholarship Trust — initiatives offering financial aid to families who want to send their kids to Catholic schools but don’t have the means to do so — Cupich said the reality of Catholic schools is different from how it used to be.

“Populations are not what they were before and people relate to their parishes differently, simply because the ethnic ties they had that bound them together are not there,” he said. “There is that loss of a community’s support sometimes for schools due to the fact that the participation in parish life is not what it used to be.”

  • Schools closing at the end of June 2015 are:
  • St. Peter, 8140 Niles Center Rd., Skokie
  • St. Hyacinth, 3640 W. Wolfram St., Chicago
  • St. Ladislaus, 3330 N. Lockwood Ave., Chicago
  • St. Turibius, 4120 W. 57th St., Chicago
  • St. Rene Goupil, 6340 S. New England Ave., Chicago
  • St. Lawrence O’Toole, 4101 S. Lawrence Ave., Matteson

Also, St. Dorothy School and St. Columbanus School on the city’s South Side will be consolidated into a new school, Augustus Tolton Catholic Academy, which will operate at the St. Columbanus site, 7120 S. Calumet Ave.

In Lake County, St. James School will be merged into Holy Cross School, and in Des Plaines, Our Lady of Destiny School will merge with St. Zachary School. The facilities of St. James and Our Lady of Destiny will be shuttered.

Beginning in the fall of 2015, St. Agatha Catholic Academy, 3151 W. Douglas Blvd. in Chicago, which currently offers pre-K through eighth grade, will become pre-K only. And, the archdiocese said the Nativity Early Childhood Center at 2740 W. 68th St. in Chicago will stay open in the Marquette Park neighborhood.

Closing the schools doesn’t come without challenges; finding a way to restructure the system to make sure families can still send their kids to Catholic school is a top concern. Partnership, not merger, is the goal for the archdiocese, Cupich said.

“One of the things that I have made clear as our schools are looking at a way in our region to work together, is that I don’t have the model of how that’s going to look,” Cupich said. “It may be that some of the schools will have a K-5 and others then will do (grades) 6 through 8, like a junior high.”

The Archdiocese of Chicago’s Office of Catholic Schools oversees 250 schools in Cook and Lake counties, encompassing more than 85,000 students and 7,000 employees, according to the archdiocese.

Preserving the identity of the city’s Catholic schools slated to close is also one of the top priorities, he added.

“We want to make sure that if two schools do work together, that the identity of the school that’s going to move into the other building is maintained,” Cupich said. “It’s not just a matter of closing a school, it’s a matter of having a community continue to identify in its ethos, in its history.”

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