At St. Timothy's Catholic Church in Affton you might catch a
glimpse of Father Dave Walter, the pastor, as he slips into the
church sanctuary in the middle of the school building to hear
Otherwise you won't see a single nun, brother or priest. The
principal and all of the teachers are lay people.
The old-style Catholic school, presided over by strict,
rule-conscious nuns in immaculate starched habits, is as much a
relic as the Latin Mass and meatless Fridays. Today, according to
the National Catholic Educational Association, three out of every
four teachers in U.S. Catholic schools are lay people. In the St.
Louis Archdiocese schools, it's almost nine in every 10.
The change has happened gradually over the last 30 years as
fewer people have entered religious orders. Meanwhile, enrollments
in Catholic schools have declined and their percentages of
non-Catholic students have increased. Non-Catholic students now
account for 12.3 percent of Catholic school enrollment nationally,
up from 10 percent in 1983.
Together, these developments have challenged the very identity
of U.S. Catholic schools. To survive, they have had to re-examine
and redefine themselves.
In 1963, at the height of the baby boom, archdiocesan schools
enrolled 110,000 students. After steady declines, their enrollment
has stabilized at around 59,000 students.
The archdiocese even built schools through much of the 1980s by
"following the people," mostly to growing suburbs, said Sister Mary
Ann Eckhoff, superintendent of archdiocesan schools.
St. Norbert's, 16455 New Halls Ferry Road in north St. Louis
County, is the newest to be built. It started in 1988 with 90
students in the lower grades, has grown to 391 students with
waiting lists for some grades and will have its first eighth-grade
graduation next year.
Sister Agnes Keena, the principal, is one of four nuns - an
usually high number for one school these days. All are
indistinguishable in dress and appearance from the school's 19 lay
teachers, who are trained in Catholic theology and practice.
Keena, who grew up in Catholic schools here, said dedicated lay
teachers and involved parents with a stake in their children's
education have helped to make up for the near-disappearance of
"We have 92 parent volunteers that make our computer program
operable, take care of our library, serve us a hot lunch every day
and are there for children who need extra help in reading," Keena
said. As the old church sanctuary was refitted for classrooms,
parents painted and removed asbestos, she said.
All students at St. Norbert's now are Catholic, but that will
probably change. "We are building a faith community here and after
we get it together, we are going to serve others outside this
community," Keena said.
Central Catholic School, 1106 North Jefferson Avenue, is a new
breed of Catholic school. About 60 percent of its students this
year aren't Catholic. The school, in the old St. Bridget's parish
school, is one of five in the Federation of Catholic Urban Schools.
All serve all-black inner-city areas, once thick with schools for
The Archdiocese set up the schools in 1989 to anchor their
neighborhoods, even though few Catholics still lived there.
The atmosphere at Central Catholic, like that at most Catholic
schools today, is relaxed compared with Catholic schools of old.
Students move about and speak freely, instead of always raising
their hands and waiting to be called upon. …