Change Forces Catholics to Redefeine Their Schools Educational Mission Must Rely on Lay People, Not Nuns

Article excerpt

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 students' confessions.

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 teaching clerics.

"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 Catholic immigrants.

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. …

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