Will Philadelphia’s Catholic Schools Be Resurrected?

For thousands of Philadelphians, parochial school was more than just a place to learn to read and write. It taught students right from wrong, shaped their character and bound them together. But can the schools survive in an age of lost faith?

Will Philadelphia Catholic schools be resurrected? Parochial education in Philly is on the decline.

I walk in and see Linda Walters, who is now Linda Walters McSwigan, and I recognize her instantly because even when she was a little girl she had the face of an adult, droopy and fixed and serious. She ran for classroom pr­esident in fifth grade, the same year in which I managed the campaign of Michael Tobin, who was our class’s most handsome, athletic and popular kid; one night he and I sat in his kitchen as I glued stars to a colorful poster and whipped up the memorable slogan “With Tobin the Terrific, You’re Always on Top!” All of the other “campaigns” gave out favors—licorice, Fun Dip—to woo voters. I did, too, but not to the other candidates, nor to their campaign managers. If nothing else, Catholic school teaches you tactical thinking.

I cheek-kiss Linda and a few other girls from Resurrection of Our Lord grammar school, Class of 1977, here for our 35th reunion. An odd year to mark, but Jimmy L­amplugh didn’t make the 25-year and he’s in from Ireland and what the hell, the beer will be good. We’re in a wedding-factory-type hall in the Northeast, a few miles from our old school in Rhawnhurst. About 70 graduates are in attendance—a decent turnout from a class of 120, especially when you consider the troubling fact that eight of us are dead.

High-school reunions are one thing, but in Philly, your Catholic grammar-school reunion is something special. To many, it’s the only reunion that counts. If you went through Catholic school here, you’re bonded in a unique way that people who went to public or private school just can’t understand.

I sit at a table, silently wishing I had dropped 20 pounds before coming, amazed at how little so many of us have really changed: Jimmy Drumm, a tough back in those days, is a cop; Lisa Cosenza, loud and brash and bawdy at the age of seven, is still all of those things at 50. I turn to Debbie Wilson Kovach, to whom I basically proposed marriage in seventh grade, only to be crudely rebuffed (Me: “You turned me gay.” Her: “Sorry”), and remark that my 30-year public-high-school reunion turned out 13 percent of the graduating class; here, we have almost 60 percent. I’ve heard similar numbers for other Catholic-school reunions.

Debbie mulls the strong showing. “Maybe it’s simply the fact that we all survived it together.”

But how many will in the future? It’s a question far more sober than Lent. In 2012, the Catholic-school population in the Philadelphia archdiocese—a sweeping land mass that includes the city and most of the adjoining Pennsylvania su­burbs—stood at somewhere around 68,000, which is roughly how many kids were enrolled in 1911. At their zenith in 1961, the region’s parochial grammar and high schools boasted enrollment of 250,000. That’s a total drop of 73 percent over 50 years. And the pace has only picked up: The archdiocese has shed a third of its student population in the last decade.

For someone like me, the verdict here—that the Catholic-school system in Philadelphia is disappearing, school by school—is incomprehensible. In a parochial city such as ours, parochial school has been a tie that binds for generations, as much as neighborhood or ethnicity. We who attended find one another and instantly start talking about the nuns, the discipline, the sacraments, the uniforms, the loudspeaker announcements, then the discipline some more, then the nuns some more. My mother and her hairdresser posse still dine out on horror stories about infamous Sister Bernard Loyola, at St. Columba at 24th and Lehigh. These women went to grammar school in the 1930s.

The archdiocese knows all of this, of course. It knows its schools are an enormous cultural bond in Philadelphia. It also knows they’re dying. Which is why it’s handed the keys to its education system to a new, outside initiative in a last-ditch effort to stanch the bleeding. I just wish I could really believe it’s going to work.

It’s ironic, I suppose, that what I’m missing is faith.

On the rainy morning I pull up to “Resso,” as we called it, the school, like the Catholic Church itself, seems tired. A lone, sad window-unit air-conditioner peeks out from a central window; mesh grates cover the lower casements.

I was six years old in 1969, when I started first grade at Resurrection, dumped into a class of more than 40 taught by one Sister Charles Dorothy, who was young and pretty and wielded a ruler like the Gestapo. You might say I was a “high-
spirited” child, one who was quickly bringing home “unhappiness cards” (complete with grumpy faces) that my mother dutifully signed, signaling her acknowledgment that I was a total pain in the ass. Every once in a while she was dragged in for a meeting at which Sister got to vent in person, such as the day I spun her precious globe so hard that it whirled right out of an open second-story window into the schoolyard below.

During one memorable lecture, Sister Charles went around the room and asked each of us what we would do if we could do something nice for anyone. Rita Marshall, who sat in front of me, gave a greeting-card-worthy account of how she would cure all of the world’s illnesses. When it was my turn, I looked at Sister and said, “I’d buy you a new dress. Black and white, every day. Don’t you get tired of it?” It was the only time all year I saw her crack a smile.

It took two years and a lot more exasperated nuns’ notes before I got the hang of school. About the same time, I discovered that there was no more perfect laboratory of social Darwinism than the Catholic schoolyard. Slight, sensitive, and not exactly a pillar of burgeoning masculinity, I quickly learned that my Catholic-school uniform had a target on its back. I dodged out of the way of the thugs as best I could, and then found an unlikely safety valve: I could draw. To their delight, I began cartooning them all, handing out loose-leaf caricatures like hostess gifts.

It all seemed so oppressive then. And in a way, it was. Resso was strictly no-frills. Gym was taken in your school uniform, and largely consisted of dodgeball and jumping jacks; music was taught via an old phonograph that played scratchy LPs. The physical plant itself was reminiscent of a slightly more hospitable juvenile detention center, with the ashy neon lighting found in the Northeast’s better basements. We ate lunch at our desks.

I wander through the halls of Resurrection 2.0—which, truth be told, doesn’t look all that different from 1.0—with its current principal, Joan Stulz, a doughy woman with bad knees that cause her to take Resso’s endless steep staircases one step at a time. As we tour my old classrooms, it all comes rushing back: the kids popping up from their seats when the principal walks in (“Good mornnninng, Mrs. Stullllzzz”), the musty smell of the chalk dust, the littlest kids trying to keep their shirts tucked and failing. I spin right back to the 1970s, to the boy I was before the man I became.

The biggest difference is that the nuns have practically vanished. There are hardly any in the classrooms on a daily basis. It’s hard to fathom Resso without the nuns, many of whom we drove into retirement through our antics. I was never really part of that—I was a goody-two-shoes by the time it was all over—and unlike some of the former classmates at my reunion, who roared at the stories of gaslighting the sisters, I don’t feel good about it. Which is, I think, part of the reason I wanted to come back to Resso in the first place. And why the slow, sad death of the Catholic schools is gnawing at me.

I’ve come to see that we didn’t appreciate the nuns, or the education they gave us, when we had them. Because we were young and stupid, we didn’t stop to think about the enormous sacrifice they had made for us—that they’d given up every material comfort possible, moved in with a bunch of women they didn’t know and perhaps didn’t even like, and then spent their days trying to drill lessons and some sense into kids who often needed a swift kick in the ass. The nuns taught us reading and writing and math, yes. But it’s the other stuff I’ve come to appreciate. They taught us values. And not values in the bastardized sense now bandied about on cable news shows, but in the real sense. That there was a right and there was a wrong. That being on time, knowing how to keep quiet, showing respect to authority and exerting self-control were as vital to one’s long-term success as the times tables. They taught us civics. And the rewards of self-reflection. And even the lost art of beautiful handwriting.

As I walk through the school with Mrs. Stulz, I sense that a lot of this is still here, even without the habits and rulers across the knuckles. The question is whether anyone really places any worth on it anymore. When I was at Resso in the early ’70s, 1,200 kids attended grades one to eight; today there are 616, and that includes 149 who poured in this academic year from the shuttered Our Lady of Ransom, as well as three kindergarten classes we didn’t have in my day. There was no tuition when I went; the parish supported the school. Today, tuition is $3,300 a year.

After my tour, Mrs. Stulz sits in her ­Pepto-pink office, talking to me about the day last year when she and the other Catholic-school principals filed into a meeting to find out which 45 of the archdiocese’s 156 parochial elementary schools were going to close. (In the end, 34 did; four high schools also poised for the ax were saved through grassroots fund-raising.) “It was a hard thing to go and listen to,” she says quietly. “It was very difficult, because you knew it was the end of an era.” I ask if she’s worried about the future of the schools that are left. “I see the pool of children becoming smaller, and it becoming more competitive,” she says. “More charter schools are being formed. It’s hard to co­mpete with free.”

As I walk out, back under the rainy skies, I glimpse a statue of the Virgin Mary on a tiny patch of grass. The Madonna is cast in a ghostly shade of white plaster, her arms slightly outstretched at her sides, beseeching. In this dreary setting, she looks forlorn, as she should. Because this time, I’m not sure resurrection is coming.

Brian O’Neill is one of the region’s top real estate developers, mostly of high-end residential enclaves with lofty names like Highgrove, as well as nondescript office parks. He has some skin in the saving-Catholic-education game, because he’s now the de facto fund-raiser for the archdiocese’s 21 high schools, shaking trees all over town to save a school system that expelled him three different times. Along with former Cigna CEO Edward Hanway and Casey Carter, a hotshot charter-schools honcho brought in from Washington, D.C., he’s the brains behind Faith in the Future, a private nonprofit formed last year to right the Catholic schools’ ship.

O’Neill has been troubled for years about the downward spiral of a parochial system that, as he correctly points out, was once a model for the nation. So last year he went to Charles Chaput, Philadelphia’s archbishop, and asked if he could help save the four high schools slated for closure. Chaput agreed, with the stipulation that O’Neill had to take on all the high schools. After all, these were business guys who believed in the product and would know how to turn it around. The plan was simple: run the schools smarter by cutting out the red-tape bureaucracy of the archdiocese, then raise big money by convincing philanthropists that Catholic schools deliver huge returns on investment in terms of educating at-risk kids cheaper and better than the public schools do.

It all sounds good, I’ll give them that. Though I mention to Brian O’Neill that in any other industry, a shredding of one’s customer base like that which the archdiocese has experienced would lead to one logical conclusion: You’re selling a product nobody wants anymore.

“We Catholics are responsible for the big chunk of that,” he says of the plummeting student rolls. “Because we took it for granted. The general consensus was that the Catholic Church was the wealthiest organization in the world, and they’re not. And that the schools would go on, regardless of whether we supported them. Secondly, what the schools did not do is promote their brand. The focus was on educating children and building character, but they never took the time to tell the world. So now we have to shift to offense.”

O’Neill is one of those peripatetic types, always doodling, always interrupting your next question with a Heisman and a “Hold on, you need to understand this first.” He’s a font of glowing statistics about the pa­rochial-school system here and why it matters, all backed up by impressive data. He points out how his team has already almost wiped out the high schools’ operating deficit (was $6 million a year; now $500,000), and how much transfers from West Philly High to West Catholic improve in reading proficiency. More than ninety-four percent of West Catholic’s graduates go on to college. It’s impressive. “We have a big advantage,” he says of the Catholic school system’s operations. “If the public school system wants to do something, they have to pass it in City Council, go through the school board, deal with the teachers union. We have a very small management team: three people.”

There’s no doubt that the Faith in the Future guys have pumped both a much-needed sense of urgency and much-needed cash into the parochial high schools. And when you talk to Casey Carter, he spits out all the right buzzwords and catchphrases: “holistically centralizing strategy,” “enrollment management,” “outstanding educational outcomes.” He has his talking points memorized, like flash cards hidden in his suit pocket. I have no doubt he’s very smart. “The conversation about ‘saving Catholic schools’ has been mislabeled,” he says. “It’s a very high-quality education system, and I think our success will be at the very center of revivifying the whole educational ecosystem within Philadelphia. The goal here is to use the quality of the Catholic education, to leverage the quality of Catholic schools, to transform the region and bring about the economic prosperity that everyone wants to see.”

That’s a great sound bite. And if this was all going to be decided on MSNBC, that would be fine. But the truth is, while O’Neill, Carter & Co. are raising both cash and the profile of the local Catholic high schools, the parochial grammar schools—the main feeders for those high schools—have been left to their own devices, with the Joan Stulzes of the archdiocese working feverishly just to keep the lights on and the erasers stocked. Faith in the Future often provides counsel to parish schools like Resso, but it holds no authority to enforce any of its recommendations; how the grammar schools are run lies where it has always lain, with the parish pastors. And as the bludgeoning headlines about the archdiocese’s sex scandals attest, we all know how good they’ve been at managing their fiefdoms these past few decades. And how open they are to advice on how to do it.

 

About a mile away from Resurrection is St. Matthew’s, whose principal is Sister Kathleen Touey. Sister Kathleen reminds you of Julie Andrews’s Sister Maria if she’d never left the convent for the baron. With pale blue eyes that almost twinkle, she’s sunny and funny and salt-of-the-earth in a world gone low-sodium.

Sister Kathleen knows from Catholic schools. Before she became a principal, she taught in them for 15 years—at St. Gabriel’s in South Philly, St. Francis Xavier in Fairmount, others in Feasterville and Jersey. Today her enrollment at St. Matt’s is 915, down from its historic peak of around 1,350 but holding steady.

I ask her what she thinks, aside from practical measures (such as hiring a development director to raise dollars from grammar-school alumni), she’s doing right. Because she’s doing something right; St. Matt’s parents, if you’ve ever met any, border on the evangelical when they talk about the school.

Sister Kathleen starts talking about something really interesting. And that is, as the Rolling Stones so eloquently put it, that you can’t always get you want. Education is not only about idealism, she says, but realism.

“I think sometimes in life, kids are a little overly sensitive,” she says. “They have to learn that in life, people aren’t always sweet-sweet. You have to learn how to handle adversity. Not everyone is going to love you for who you are. We ask them to respect the uniqueness of each person, which I think is very important. But they have to learn that sometimes you need a thick skin in life. Through high school, out in the work world, your boss isn’t always going to tell you, ‘You’re the greatest.’ You have to affirm with kids when they do good things. But you can’t make them soft. You can’t praise mediocrity.”

I think about her words for days after I leave. It strikes me that not only did I not appreciate the nuns’ shared sacrifice; I also didn’t appreciate that they were tough.

I was a flake when I walked into my school in 1969. I wasn’t when I walked out. Some of that is the natural process of growing up. But without the militaristic order under which Resso operated, I wonder how dif­ferently—and how lost—I might have ended up.

Rigor is the Catholic schools’ biggest selling point, but as a weapon in its marketing arsenal, I don’t see it being used very effectively. And we need it more than ever. The “You’re special,” everybody-gets-a-blue-ribbon culture that now misguides so many of our children leaves them overindulged and unprepared for the real world that lies outside the school doors. The notes and remonstrations, walking in corridors in enforced silence, mass detentions, tough tests and high standards, an insistence on reverence for something that was bigger than you—these taught me as much as, if not more than, any academics. Even being forced to fend for myself in a schoolyard pocked with bullies like land mines allowed me to develop keen social survival skills that proved invaluable later. Catholic school taught me impulse control, respect for authority and negotiating tactics. How many of our schools today teach those? But I worry that today, the parish school appears anachronistic, the modern equivalent of the little red schoolhouse. Something everyone wants, but dismisses as un-modern.

FITF’s lean and mean management team can’t fix the breakdown of the nuclear American family, which has led to too many at-risk kids without the guidance to get to their schools; the rise of secularism and a population in which one in 10 people now describe themselves as “former Catholics”; and increasing competition from a charter-school boom whose free schools tend to be new and flashy, not musty and baronial. How do you fill 15,000 empty desks in your high schools against those kinds of headwinds?

And all of the fund-raising and marketing in the world won’t erase the deep bitterness so many people feel over the archdiocese’s botched cover-ups of its sex-abuse cases. Or the resentment over the fact that while the archdiocese bemoans its multimillion-dollar debt, we turn on our televisions and see the buckets of money spent on the over-the-top pomp and pageantry of Vatican rituals like the recent papal election—money that could be making a huge difference here, to help more kids go to our schools, to get the education we did. Then there is the frustration so many of us feel about the Church’s stubborn, dictator-like decision-making, from the hymns we sing to whether we’re even allowed to have eulogies at our funerals (up to individual pastors, in case you didn’t know).

If the archdiocese doesn’t get its own house in order, the Catholic schools are doomed, period. I could tell you horror stories about trying to deal with the archdiocese to get interviews lined up for this story, which only illustrates the problem: too much red tape, too much piety and righteousness and haughtiness at the top. It’s up to Chaput to convince prospective parents not only that his schools are a great deal, but that he’s doing everything possible to make them affordable, and that his pastors are open to new ideas on ways to run them. And he has to convince the city at large that it, too, has a stake in keeping them alive.

As the reunion of the Resso Class of 1977 winds down, I find myself mulling an internal barrage of questions: How much of a loser do I feel like, knowing that Katie McGinty worked in the Clinton White House and is now running for governor? Or that John McIntyre became a bishop? (Overachievers.) Why did I not go into general contracting, like Denny Davis? And is it me, or is Ursula O’Reilly now a dead ringer for one of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills?

Of course, our graduating class also includes a registered sex offender, a well-to-do tax evader, and a guy who once staged a six-hour standoff with police on his front lawn. None of them showed. What can you do? Catholic school isn’t a panacea.

But it worked for me. I can see that now, looking around at the faces kissing and hands shaking goodbye. In an age in which the ties that bind us are being
rendered asunder with almost frightening ease, in which our political culture insists we only see how we are different, and in which technology has made us more isolated than ever, our quirky Catholic-school days keep us part of an odd but endearing club. We survived the nuns and the discipline, and we were better for it. In the end, that’s all you can ask for from your school, isn’t it? The future of Catholic schools rests on how a new generation of parents answers. And whether the archdiocese can do something it has never done before: change with the times.

I go up to Ilona Gawin Goanos, who started the Facebook page that led to this reunion, and thank her for doing it. I tell her it was so nice to see everyone again, to relive the memories.

“Oh, we’ll do it again,” she says, hugging me. “We’re already talking about the 40th.”