I am used to seeing parish schools close. Back in the 1970’s, as a college chaplain, I worked in the confines of the Albany, N.Y. diocese which, like many cities in the Rust Belt, was beginning to shed parochial schools. For the post-World War II American Church, closing a Catholic school still carried a good deal of shock value, and this was true in Albany. After several waves of closing angst, the bishop at that time supposedly said to his advisors, “I’m not going to die with every death.” I suspect that is the private mantra of many northern bishops about school and parish closings even to this day.
The closing of a school, when I hear about it in Catholic social media, always saddens me. However, the closing of a Catholic school in the “growing Sunbelt” gets my attention. The closing of a Catholic school in my own diocese is a shocker. It did happen about two weeks ago, in Lakeland, Florida. I remember doing catechetical workshops for the diocese in that facility around 1990, and I have been friends with the present pastor for over thirty years. As he is the church officer who had to make the public announcement to the parish-school community and to the media, he has become [unfairly] the target of some social media trashing, although on the whole the transitioning of students to three other local Catholic schools seems to be progressing as well as can be expected.
The immediate cause of the closing as reported by the Diocese of Orlando Office of Schools is a $500,000 projected shortfall for the coming school year, the result of a decline of 40 student enrollments, coupled with Covid-19 factors and an outstanding mortgage of at least $3 million. That constellation of factors sounds compelling enough to warrant the closing, social media critics notwithstanding. There are bigger takeaways from my local experience, though, that bear significantly upon all Catholics, and particularly those who work for the Church today or did so in the past.
I knew that two schools had closed earlier this spring in the Fall River, Massachusetts, diocese, so this week I checked to see what the national picture might look like. No major publication has catalogued the question nationally, i.e., tallied schools that were pushed over the brink by the financial complications of the Covid-19 pandemic, so the research here is piecemeal and incomplete. But in a truncated search I found the following number of school closings in specific dioceses: Newark, NJ , Diocese of Camden, NJ , Harrisburg, PA , Boston, MA , Wilmington, DE , Hartford, CN ( , Patterson, NJ  and Oklahoma City, specifically Lawton, OK . The Pittsburgh and Buffalo Dioceses, among others, are undertaking massive reorganization plans in which all schools will be required to demonstrate fiscal solvency. [A reader notified me of a closing in the Rockville Center, NY, Diocese; it had been slated to close before the virus and this was its last year, but thank you for the information.]
The Lawton, OK closing is a primer on how things can go bad. The school did have an endowment, the returns from which were providing tuition assistance to students whose family economies were seriously depleted by the virus. But the stock market tumble with the arrival of Covid evidently wiped out much of the endowment. While I did not see evidence that parishes are closing in great numbers, I did find evidence of significant parish staff layoffs even in the few affluent dioceses such as Los Angeles, and even here the vice was growing tighter. The LA Archdiocese advised parishes that loans at interest from the diocese were available to parishes to keep parish personnel but added that this aid could not be extended indefinitely. About 13,000 of this country’s 17,000 parishes applied for the federal Covid 19 employee salary assistance, but this, too, is a stop gap measure of limited direction. Anecdotally from social media I know of many furloughs and outright releases of Catholic lay employees, and closer to home, the director of the Catholic Charities clinic where I work was released.
Covid-19 did not of its own accord cause the wheels of the U.S. Catholic economy to fall off in many places; what it did was give us a clue of how shaky many of our enterprises and business methods truly are. The closing of a school—or a parish, for that matter—usually raises the same battery of questions from members that demonstrate significant gaps in understanding, and as a former pastor I heard these questions over forty years ago. These gaps of understanding can be clustered into two groups:  Why doesn’t the diocese save us, and  why didn’t we hear about our crisis earlier?
The first question assumes that the typical diocese is wealthy, i.e., flush in liquid reserves to dole out to parishes in regular support or emergency situations. This model of episcopal assistance was common in large urban dioceses, notably New York. Cardinal Spellman [r. 1939-1967]. The Wheeling, WV diocese receives income, for example, from an oil field deeded to the diocese many years ago, a secret revealed to the laity only last year when its bishop fell into disgrace for abusing individuals and diocesan resources. By the time I arrived in Florida in 1978, the practice for new construction of parishes and churches involved assigning a priest to a newly outlined parish territory, along with a tract of land and the mortgage for the land. Some few dioceses have stout reserves to draw from, but the odds are you do not live in one of them, few as they are. If I had to guess, you have a better chance of living in a diocese that is close to or already in formal bankruptcy. At least 20 of this country’s 185 dioceses have declared bankruptcy, before the virus.
Dioceses may show reserves on their books in some shape or form, but there are many asterisks to note, perhaps the most prominent being the unknown future costs of clergy abuse settlements. That the intensity and the unpredictability of the Corona virus caught so many institutions off guard suggests that there may be an absence of “emergency—break the grass” planning where determining how much reserve is sufficient. [Florida, where our signature theme parks are currently reopening, is currently averaging 1300 new Covid victims per day. Per Newsweek, 50% of states are seeing increases in daily case reports.] The Archdiocese of New York is losing $1 million per week due to closed churches and emergency Catholic Charities services. One more point I learned from the closings in my home diocese of Buffalo is the cost of a church or school no longer in use. A structure no longer used for ministry must still be insured, secured, and meet local safety ordinances until the diocese can be sold or demolished. The real estate value would still show up as an asset.
This last point is a good counter to those who argue that the Church should sell the “priceless” property of Vatican City and the great churches of Rome to save the world. They are assets, to be sure, but priceless and worthless mean about the same—they are not liquid assets for food banks or even paying the electric bill. In every major church I visited in Rome I received an appeal for financial assistance for urgent structural repair and upkeep. On a lighter note, selling expensive bishops’ mansions where they still exist may be marginally helpful, though the sale would be one-time infusion of cash. My wife and I have eaten with our bishops twice in their home, modest residences without a hint of bling. Selling our bishop's home would not move the needle very much.
Part 2 will follow in a day or two.