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?

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.