There are some six million, mostly Catholic, Hispanic students enrolled in elementary schools across the US. (Photo by Lloyd Wolf for the US Census Bureau)

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American Catholic Church struggles
to maintain presence in inner cities

By Tony Favro, USA Editor*

20 April 2008: Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the United States demonstrated his support for the 67 million Roman Catholics in America, about 25 per cent of the total population. It also provided an opportunity to examine the changing role of the Catholic Church in US cities.

Join the debate on the Catholic Church in America

Churches as anchors
Most Catholic parishes in the United States were established between the mid-1800s and the early-1900s to serve Italian, Irish, and Polish immigrant communities in American cities.

In the late-1800s, parish churches began opening schools for immigrants in response to anti-Catholic sentiment among nativist groups. Catholic school enrollment increased steadily, reaching an all-time high of 5.3 million students in 1960.

Parishes also offered neighborhood ministries, providing food and clothing to the poor and unemployed. In larger cities, Catholic dioceses operated hospitals, hospices for the terminally ill, and health clinics for the uninsured.

Catholic churches, schools and institutions, in other words, became important anchors of urban neighborhoods. While public schools began crumbling in the 1960s and 1970s as a result of the flight of white, middle-class families to the suburbs, Catholic schools have remained strong. The National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) reports a 99 per cent graduation rate at Catholic secondary schools in 2007 versus a 50 per cent graduation rate for urban public high schools.

The NCEA also reports that nearly 1,900 Catholic schools in the US were closed or consolidated in the past 20 years, most of them in cities.

Sad but inevitable”
Even though the percentage of the US population that is Catholic has remained stable at around 25 per cent for the past thirty years, pressures on US urban parishes have increased.

White flight to the suburbs, dwindling numbers of Catholic priests and sisters, and escalating costs to operate old buildings are the main reasons given for church and school closings. Mismanagement and scandal also play a part. At the height of the priest sex-abuse scandal, a Gallup Poll found that one-third of American Catholics withheld weekly church offerings, fearing they would be used not for churches and schools but to pay off claims and lawsuits. The drop in collections compounded the economic woes on struggling urban parishes, as dioceses often had to reduce the annual financial subsidies they provided to these parishes.

When the Catholic bishop of Camden, New Jersey, announced the elimination of 58 churches in April 2008, the local newspaper called the closings “sad but inevitable”, part of an understandable national trend.

Many Catholic dioceses are seeking ways to maintain a positive presence in needy urban neighborhoods. “We can’t abandon the city,” says Stephen Bevans, professor at Chicago’s Catholic Theological Union. “These are the very communities that need the church.”

Rochester, New York provides a typical scenario. In 2007, the Catholic diocese announced its intention to close twelve churches and schools, but continue their urban ministries of feeding, housing, and caring for the poor. 

This is not an adequate solution according to many urban activists. They note that large church and school buildings often remain vacant and become a blighting influence on an already struggling neighborhood.

The ministries themselves can also be a concern. Tom Argust, Rochester’s retired Commissioner of Community Development has spoken extensively about how the proliferation of nonprofits in urban neighborhoods can be unhealthy for cities trying to revitalize. Sometimes nonprofits operate, Argust says, “at the expense of what might be in the best interests of the community they serve.”

In any event, the ability of Catholic dioceses to sustain urban ministries over the long term is questionable. Most American Catholic dioceses are experimenting with “clusters” of primarily suburban parishes, which share priests and administrators. The hope is that suburban churches will develop a sense of mission to city neighborhoods where parishes have closed and support urban ministries, but there is no clear evidence that this is, in fact, happening in a widespread, effective manner.

None of the alternatives make up for the presence of an active church and school in a city neighborhood.

According to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, over 70 per cent of the Catholic population growth in the US since 1960 has been Latino, primarily immigrants from Central and South America. Unlike previous generations of immigrants, most will not have the benefit of a parish church or school and the serenity, safety, comfort, and quality education they can bring.

The loss of viable Catholic parishes is shattering to many American urban communities. City governments, inevitably, are left to pick up the pieces.

As Richard Garnett, professor of law at the University of Notre Dame writes of Catholic church and school closings, “As these institutions fold, the burdens on and challenges to public ones will increase.”

*Tony Favro’s latest book Hard Constants: Sustainability and the American City is now available free of charge from City Mayors. Please complete our order form to receive a pdf copy. Libraries of academic institutions may receive a hard copy. Order form

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