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SHREWSBURY, Mo. (ChurchMilitant.com) — The archdiocese of St. Louis is set to announce a series of Catholic school closures this week, marking a significant phase in its ongoing downsizing strategy. The move comes as the archdiocese grapples with dwindling enrollment and challenges to financial sustainability.
As of Friday, up to 30 parish pastors faced a critical decision over whether to shut down their under-enrolled schools by the end of the academic year. Archbishop Mitchell Rozanski is expected to release an update soon after reviewing their decisions, a spokesperson for the archdiocese has confirmed.
The urgency of these closures reflects a broader crisis within the archdiocese's Catholic school system. Church leaders have repeatedly emphasized the financial impracticality of maintaining numerous school facilities for a shrinking student population. Currently, the 82 grade schools under the archdiocese operate below 65% capacity, leading to an average annual operating deficit of $600,000 per school.
This crisis is not unique to Catholic education but mirrors a trend seen in public and other private schools. The problem is primarily attributed to a steady decline in birth rates. The impact is stark: student numbers in kindergarten through eighth grade across the archdiocese have halved, plummeting from 40,000 in 2000 to about 19,000 today.
The archdiocese's jurisdiction spans St. Louis and 10 eastern Missouri counties.
The situation is particularly acute in smaller schools, and more than half of the archdiocesan institutions have fewer than 200 students. This figure is considered a critical threshold for a school's viability. In the fall, parish leaders from many of these smaller schools engaged in discussions with archdiocesan officials, addressing topics like enrollment, demographic trends, financial health and the proximity of schools to one another.
Pastors were presented with three stark choices: close their schools, merge with another Catholic institution or commit to staying open. The latter option requires a comprehensive, long-term plan for fundraising and increasing student enrollment. Strategic plans from pastors opting to keep their schools operational are due by February.
The decision to downsize, while difficult, is seen as a necessary step in addressing the challenges of operating a large network of schools with diminishing resources and declining student numbers.
The archdiocese's decision, while intended to stabilize its educational framework, poses significant implications for the communities involved. Families, students and educators have expressed concerns over how they will be affected during a time of transition and uncertainty.
The archdiocese has been engaged in a massive number of Church closures as part of its "All Things New" initiative. Earlier this year, the archdiocese issued 83 decrees affecting its parishes. Several planned mergers were temporarily suspended when the Vatican was asked to intervene in the decisions. Parishioners have played a role in attempting to save their parishes, in part by engaging a canon lawyer to advise them of their rights.