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Why Catholic schools are shutting their doors

By Tatiana Schlossberg

The Record (Hackensack, N.J.) (MCT)

Published: Saturday, April 27 2013 5:00 a.m. MDT

People attend a memorial Mass for boxer Arturo Gatti at St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church in Jersey City, N.J., on Thursday.

Dylan Wilson, Associated Press

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HACKENSACK, N.J. — Padre Pio Academy in Hackensack, N.J., will close its doors this year, following Assumption Academy in Emerson, N.J., which was shuttered in 2012. The Archdiocese of New York alone plans to close 24 schools in June.

Nationwide, nearly 150 Catholic schools will close this year, a troubling trend for the church in America. The effects ripple through communities as schools and the parishes that support them lose members.

They are often buckling under the pressures of declining enrollment and a weak economy.

Several challenges facing the church, in addition to a faltering economy, help to explain why so many schools are closing. Society is more secularized and there is a decline in the churchgoing population. The priest sex abuse scandal has kept the church in the news — and in court — for many years. And there have been demographic shifts in America's Catholic landscape, including immigrants who are Catholic but who do not put a priority on a Catholic education.

"Fewer and fewer people are going to church now," said Jim Goodness, spokesman for the Newark, N.J., Archdiocese, "and fewer and fewer parents are sending their children to Catholic schools."

That means less tuition. And despite the Catholic Church's legendary wealth, on a local level it doesn't have the cash to close the gap in individual parishes. And if regular operating costs, such as maintenance and teacher salaries, are being covered by deficit spending, then the parish starts talking about closing a school, Goodness said.

If a school's finances are in trouble, the discussions about closure begin at the parish level, Goodness said. If the parish administration can't see a way to keep a school open, it will make a formal request to the archbishop to close it. Once that decision is made, the diocese will often look to lease the building to a non-profit or a public school, Goodness said.

For instance, what was once Paterson Catholic High School now houses Grades 7-12 of the Paterson Charter School for Science and Technology.

"Our hope is that schools return and that people will come back to schools that might have closed," Goodness said. "Or we can get multiple uses for buildings. Even though the Catholic school might not be there, we can use the building for religious education."

If a Catholic school is used by the municipality, the building can help preserve a sense of community and have a lasting purpose beyond parochial education.

The closure of a big Catholic high school, or several Catholic schools in an area, can hurt public school districts.

"When schools close, whether they're charter schools or Catholic schools, we get kids going into already-overcrowded schools," said Irene Sterling, president of the Paterson Education Fund, a not-for-profit that works with the community to help improve education in Paterson, N.J.

"Historically, the Paterson school district has tried to lease those school buildings, which often works out so that kids still get schools, we get to use the buildings and the church gets the income to support other ministries," she said.

Sterling said she sees a sense of loss in her community.

"Schools are very unique places — when a school closes, even if somebody takes over that building and the kids stay or the families stay, the community is different afterwards," she said.

With fewer parents choosing Catholic education for their children, because of financial reasons or growing disillusionment with the church over the sex abuse scandal, times remain challenging for the church.

One of the main problems is the economy, which has many parents forgoing a Catholic education when they can choose a public school. "Nothing beats free," Goodness said.

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