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?

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.