7 Schools Hold Final Masses; Curriculum to Go Secular

Article excerpt


Sunday was the last Mass for the 175 students at Holy Comforter/St. Cyprian Catholic School on Capitol Hill - a final farewell to decades of memories of uniforms, crucifixes and prayers.

Founded in 1892 and staffed by the Oblate Sisters of Providence, it is one of seven schools around the District saying good-bye this week to its Catholic identity. Most are venerable institutions known to D.C. residents for many decades.

After a final Mass, the statues and crucifixes will come down. No more beginning-of-the-day or lunch prayers will be offered. Slated to convert to charter institutions, the schools' Catholic identities will slowly fade.

"We will not be able to explicitly announce Jesus Christ in our school," Monsignor Charles Pope, pastor of Holy Comforter/St. Cyprian, said at Sunday's farewell Mass. "That is a great loss. But values will still be taught in the hallways of our school."

Calling about 100 students, faculty and alumni to the front of the church, he told the congregation: "You are seeing the fruit of 116 years.

"God will continue to work. We don't always understand His ways," he said.

Last fall, the Archdiocese of Washington announced it could no longer afford to keep open seven of its inner-city schools. Although 75 have transferred out to still-functioning Catholic institutions, most of the 1,100 students are staying put while their curriculum goes from sacred to secular.

Jacks will be substituted for rosary beads in teaching youngsters how to count. The ebony cross and the altar-boy photos at the south entrance to Holy Comforter/St. Cyprian will be taken down. The cross logo on the uniforms will be replaced by an apple, the new school symbol. The new name will be Capitol Hill Campus.

The Rev. Steve Schenck, pastor of Nativity Catholic Church in Northwest, attached to a soon-to-be secularized Nativity Catholic Academy, has already had the crucifixes removed. At Sunday's farewell Mass, he gave one to each teacher. Established in 1925, the school was staffed for years by the Sisters of St. Paul de Chartres.

The mood at Holy Comforter/St. Cyprian had its melancholy moments.

"We've all felt the tension, the fear, the grief," Principal Christian White told the congregation. "We don't exactly understand why we are at this moment. One thing we do know: God is in control, and God will work things out."

Many of the schools are decades old, founded in an era when European Catholic immigration to the United States was at an all-time high. Schools were staffed by orders of nuns with starched wimples and floor-length habits.

But those days are long gone. In 1997, the archdiocese created a City Center Consortium to help keep 12 struggling schools open. But 76 percent of the students were non-Catholic and, as enrollment dipped, the archdiocese decided to close all but four.

It was a controversial decision, as the all-white archdiocesan steering committee had decided to close the majority-black schools. An group called Save Our Black Catholic Schools unsuccessfully tried to forestall the closings. …