NEWARK, N.J. (RNS) Suzanne Alworth remembers the glory days of Catholic schools: classrooms taught by nuns packed with close to 40 children in blue-and-white plaid uniforms.

Immaculate Conception High School is a Roman Catholic coeducational college preparatory high school that operates under the supervision of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Newark.

Immaculate Conception High School is a Roman Catholic coeducational college preparatory high school that operates under the supervision of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Newark.Creative Commons image by Blondhairblueeyed

But 35 years later, Alworth’s high school, Immaculate in Montclair, where she graduated in 1979, is fighting to stay open. The school is $900,000 in debt, enrollment is less than half of the building’s capacity and the Archdiocese of Newark will close its doors if it can’t come up with a plan to boost enrollment and improve its finances, said Jim Goodness, a spokesman for the archdiocese.

“It was a complete surprise when they decided to close the school,” Alworth said. “I’m going to do everything I can to keep this school open because I believe in its mission.”

Catholic schools across the state and country are struggling. Goodness said the state’s largest diocese, the Archdiocese of Newark, closed four of its 70 elementary schools this year.

The four schools closed this year were not financially sound and could not keep their enrollment up, Goodness said. The archdiocese closed six schools in 2012, six in 2010 and three in 2009.

Other Catholic dioceses in New Jersey have faced the same problems. The Camden, Metuchen, Paterson and Trenton dioceses have collectively closed more than 20 schools in five years, according to diocese officials.

Enrollment in Catholic schools across the country has been on a steady decline since the 1960s, according to data from the National Catholic Education Association based in Washington, D.C. In the 1960s, there were more than 5.2 million children enrolled in almost 13,000 Catholic schools. Today, there are fewer than 2 million children in fewer than 6,600 schools.

In the last decade, almost 1,900 Catholic schools across the country closed and almost 580,000 students moved out of the Catholic school system, said McDonald.

For many students and families, the closures and threat of closures have caused not only anxiety, but also heartbreak.

Brianna White of Newark, who recently worked at a car wash and bake sale to raise money for Immaculate Conception, said all her siblings went to the school. She said the small Catholic school environment helped build her confidence.

Brianna just finished her junior year at Immaculate Conception and doesn’t know what she’ll do if the school closes.
“I feel like as seniors, we shouldn’t have to be looking for another high school,” she said. “We’ve gotten so close together. We are a fun, loving family.”

A 2013 Gallup poll shows that New Jersey has the second highest Catholic population in the country, about 44 percent. But even with such a large number of Catholics, the number of students in Catholic schools in the Newark archdiocese has declined more than 40 percent since 1999, according to the archdiocese.

Catholic elementary schools, according to Dale McDonald, the director of public policy and educational research at the National Catholic Education Association, have taken a bigger hit than secondary schools. High schools, she explained, are more likely to be operated through religious orders or boards of trustees, so their funding is more tuition driven. She said the high schools also have a stronger hold on alumni who are likely to donate money that helps keep the doors open.

But not everyone has lost faith in the future of Catholic education.

Goodness, the spokesman for the Archdiocese of Newark, thinks its new “Lighting the Way” program could be a sustainable model for Catholic elementary schools. The program will change the parish-school relationship to an across-the-archdiocese partnership, essentially pooling resources.

Right now, the financial burden of the elementary schools is on the parishes to which they are associated. With the new program, all parishes will contribute money to all of the Catholic parish elementary schools, regardless of whether the parishes have schools.

Margaret Dames, the superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Newark, said the archdiocese is also planning to adjust its marketing strategy. She said they are beginning to emphasize the fact that all schools have Middle States accreditation and 13 have received Blue Ribbon recognition for high achievement.

“Our Catholic schools are on the cutting edge,” Dames said. “We are just as good if not better than the other options.”

Many parents and students say they still believe in the Catholic school mission.

John Bishop, a 1978 graduate of Immaculate Conception, is on a board to raise money and create a long-term plan to boost enrollment at the school. Since June 10, the school has raised more than $287,000 through its webpage as of yesterday, passing the halfway mark to its $500,000 goal by July 15.

He said the school’s enrollment has gone up to 168 from its low point of 147 in 2012, so he thinks it can make a comeback.

“We’re putting kids into good schools like the University of Chicago and UNC,” Bishop said. “It’s going to take some time, but in the last few years we have had a huge influx of alums. That’s been huge for us.”

(Neil Haggerty writes for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J.)




  1. The Catholic Church must face the fact that they do not need to infiltrate every study with religion in order to “confirm” the brainwashing of young members. Study should be objective. The only reason for the existence of Catholic schools at any level in the past was to reinforce early training because church leaders are threatened that individual Catholics may begin to think for themselves and challenge official church doctrine.

    In the days of greater Catholic education, the church relied on the low-paid services of teaching sisters and brothers and priests. Their numbers have immensely reduced, and those who have remained have decided to choose ministries that best fit their talents–and those have not been in Catholic schools.

    The fact is that few adult Catholics believe the same even about those matters the church considers doctrine. In the past, in spite of more widespread Catholic education, as people matured, if they continued to study through life, to learn, and to think, they began to think for themselves, and it was not always consonant with the official church doctrine by any means.

    The practice of contraception in spite of the loud voice of the celibate (often pedophile) clergy preaching against it is just one example of the drift of the People of God from the official doctrine of their church.

    Attendance in the old tradition of “Confession” is another. Confession hours have been reduced to almost zero. The same is true for the “Last Rites” for the dying. The so-called sacraments, whose development evolved centuries after the first Jesus communities, are fading fast. Soon, I am sure, the Catholic Church will be like the Reformation churches and only consider Baptism and the Holy Communion as sacraments. “Sacramental power” gave an artificial control of the clergy of the church over the people in the pews.

    Also, to remain alive and vibrant, the church is going to have to end the requirement of celibacy for priestly ordination that was begun to protect church property, not for any spiritual reason. Along with the end of celibacy, so sadly ignored by clerical pedophiles and their justice obstructing bishops, the church must also begin to respect women by extending ordination to them. Not because the church is losing male, celibate priests, but because it is right. Sex and marriage must be respected as well as women.

  2. Another immensely important aspect of all this, Suzanne Alworth, is the fact that Archbishop John Hynes spent much more than the $900,000 debt of Immaculate High School in Montclair, NJ, on expanding the already spacious mansion he used as a weekend and summer get-away in preparation for regular residence as his retirement palace.

    Myers’ spokesman, Jim Goodness, also defended that atrocity with all kinds of distortions. That royal archbishop’s palace is not even located in the Diocese of Newark!

    The main reason diocesan schools are failing is that they no longer have the slave labor of nuns and brothers. Consequently, they have to charge tuition, and the fewer low-paid religious staffing the schools, the higher the tuition must go. People are paying local and state taxes for public education, why should they double-pay for religious education that can be done without diocesan school systems.

    Some dioceses have defied the Constitution and with the compliance of equally defiant state legislators and governors have gotten some states to cough up public funding for their religious schools.

    The people of those states have allowed this to take place, and this is as harmfully complacent as the people who continue to sit in the pews of Catholic churches while the clergy in the sanctuaries have sexually molested their children and bishops like John Myers have tried to obstruct justice by hiding these crimes.

    One can say the people of this nation and the people of our states, like the people in the pews of the Catholic Church, deserve the wicked outcomes of their civil and church governments when they are so complacent in the face of such sins and crimes.

    The Catholic Church does not need its own schools to solidify catechism brainwashing. It could lead its people very well along spiritual paths with appropriate church activities just as the Reformation churches have been doing for centuries so successfully.

  3. My Catholic elementary school was innovative and high achieving. But the church would be askance at what was taught in religion classes. The instruction was not really liberal but directed to some old mystical and thoughtful Catholic traditions. The main purpose of marriage, for instance, was taught as companionable love, not procreation. This view would open the door to gay marriage! Today the school is independent through still parish affiliated. It receives generous donations from alumni, including wealthy Hispanics. Most students are not Catholic but the school is still recognized for its high academic achievement.

    My religion teacher in my Catholic high school was a card carrying member of the French Communist Party, which had broken with Moscow, and rejected historic and materialistic determinism. He did, however, teach us a Marxist interpretation of the history of the church in France. No objection from parents. Quite a fascinating course, even for the Republicans in the class.

    But that was New York City.

  4. I went to a Catholic school.
    I have sentimental feelings but that is to be expected. I had a great crush on a girl in Catholic school.

    It doesn’t validate the experience nor does it validate the lies I was taught.

    Please close these damn things. All of them.
    ‘God’ is divisive nonsense.

    • Edith Stein's student

      How do you propose to close all the Catholic schools? And if you succeed, what do you intend to do to those hard-headed brothers, sisters, and laypeople who start underground schools? What is to prevent your methods from infecting every other government agency? Are you going to spare the Mennonites? Muslims? Presbyterians? Baptists? Mormons? Orthodox Jews? Reformed Jews? What are your criteria for sparing some and shutting down others. As John Lennon said, “We’d all love to see the plan.”

  5. Sexual abuse scandals have cost the U.S. Catholic Church nearly $3 billion dollars over an eight year period; and according to a report released by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops last month. (The Christian Post 2014)
    So, Catholic Schools are fighting the Catholic Church to stay open.

  6. I wondered at first why the comments from gilhcan and Atheist Max were so left wing nut job talk. But noticed the writer of the article is from the Star Ledger, and that may explain a lot. Possibly both of these commenters read that propaganda. Didn’t realize that left wing rag was still in business and I live in northern NJ.

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