Catholic Contraction Continues

This week's announcement that Cardinal Dougherty and Northeast Catholic high schools would close at the end of the 2009-2010 school year should come as no surprise to anyone who has spent time following the Project's adventures. It's simply another example of the Catholic contraction within the city of Philadelphia--a steady, seemingly irreversible shrinkage of Roman Catholic institutions--churches, schools, religious orders, etc.

Now, yes, schools aren't generally the Project's concern, except where they directly impact the health of the churches we visit. But I bring this up because it's another stark example of the troubling trends the Project has witnessed since day one. And a clear message that our mission may be a hopeless one.

The temptation is to blame the Archdiocese, as we so often do, but in this case their hands may have been tied. Keeping an under-enrolled school open is not the same as keeping a church open. High schools need far more manpower and monetary resources to stay afloat, and that's just not something you can magically pull out of thin air.

These closures underline the essential problem--Philadelphia continues to be a place the middle class flees in droves. Sure, families aren't having 10 kids anymore, and schools that are built for that kind of procreation are bound for some adjustments no matter what they do.

But there are still enough kids to keep places like Dougherty and Northeast Catholic alive. Problem is, they're just not here. Witness last year's proud announcement that the Archdiocese would construct two sparkling new high school in Upper Providence and Hilltown. (An announcement that now leaves a very bitter taste in a lot of mouths.) Where are these towns? The Project would need help to find them on a map, but that's where the families and kids are, not Olney and Frankford. However dim the Archdiocese may be, they're bright enough to follow the money. And the old stalwarts suffer and die.

Sadly, I know these two won't be the last.

One final note: these closures do directly impact churches, since the families that do remain in the city are often drawn to certain areas because of the proximity to good schools like these. What will they do now that those options are now gone? Leave, probably. And that will absolutely hurt the local parishes. Olney's St. Helena, once the city's largest and a huge feeder for what was once the world's largest Catholic high school, will find it even harder to survive. Ditto for the bevy of parishes surrounding Northeast, including our beloved Church Alley, which has problems of its own these days.

Alumni of both schools are mobilizing frantically to try to mount preservation campaigns. The Project wishes them luck--it's tough losing a piece of your past. The Official Mother of the Philadelphia Church Project is actually a Dougherty alumna, and the closure has been hard on her. Even if they do pull off a miracle, it won't change a thing--without the people, these insitutions can't and won't survive in the long run.

Cherish your memories, and do all you can to preserve the things that made them possible. You never know when they'll be taken from you.