Catholic education in St. Louis area in flux as culture, demographics shift
Catholic education is a tradition almost as old as St. Louis itself. Saint Louis University was founded by Jesuit priests in 1818, and is gearing up for its 200th anniversary.
Yet from kindergarten to college, Catholic education in the area is undergoing a shift due to declining enrollment and cultural evolutions.
The Sunday before classes started at SLU this semester, student Mass was standing-room only. Junior Amy Francis said this one is geared for non-Catholics, which showed when the congregation was told that those who didn’t want to take communion could still come forward for a blessing.
“They give you cue cards in case you aren’t, and they really make you comfortable,” Francis said.
More than 50 percent of Saint Louis University students are Catholic, according to the school, but it also attracts students of other faiths or who aren’t religious.
Senior Ameer Khan chose SLU because she was accepted into a scholar’s program and offered a lot of financial aid. She also liked that there was an active Muslim Student Association, and didn’t realize it was a Catholic school until after she’d been there for a while.
It’s a Jesuit-run institution, following a tradition of activism and intellectual curiosity. And that put social justice issues on Khan’s radar.
“Even though I was brought up as a Muslim and identified as queer later on, I was really siloed from the greater sort of injustices that happen against those communities on like a systematic scale,” she said.
The Jesuit emphasis on activism attracts like-minded students, which can sometimes create friction when their championed causes conflict with Catholic values.
For example, students pushed last school year for access to contraceptives like birth control pills and condoms at the campus health center. The university’s first lay president, Fred Pestello, said no.
“What we are and what we do here is not for everybody. We are a faith-based institution,” Pestello said. “I think what separates us from secular institutions is that we can explicitly grapple with the big questions, explicitly pursue issues of faith.”
Senior Hannah McGinley felt like Pestello’s decision is in conflict with SLU’s promise of inclusion.
“On one hand, they're advertising themselves as very open, you know, very accepting of a bunch of different types of people. And yet in certain ways they'll kind of rely on those quote unquote Catholic values in order to not accept certain people or not accept certain things that are not you know in line with the university,” McGinley said.
Despite the pushback, Pestello believes SLU’s Catholic identity is an asset in attracting students. Last year, SLU stepped up fundraising efforts due a budget crunch amid a 4 percent drop in enrollment. It also laid off more than 100 employees.
Asked whether he ever feels torn between keeping donors and students happy, Pestello acknowledged “differences within and between our many stakeholders.”
“But it is what we share in common, which far exceeds that on which we may disagree, that most bonds us together and allows for our differences to be discussed and debated and, perhaps, we change as a result of that. This is often the genesis of true growth,” Pestello added in an emailed statement.
Pestello said this year’s freshman class is the second-largest in university history, signaling a possible end to declining enrollment. Still, the need to attract both students and funding will require the university to continue to find a balance between sometimes-conflicting perspectives.
K-12 enrollment issues
That same issue comes up for the area’s Catholic grade schools and high schools.
The St. Louis Archdiocese’s 10-county region is the largest school system in the state of Missouri. But enrollment is down 12,000 students from the 2006-07 school year. And Catholic schools, especially ones within St. Louis and north St. Louis County, have become less Catholic and white.
A key to any parish school’s survival, St. Ann Catholic School principal Jacob Reft said, is a more socioeconomically and spiritually diverse group of students. Fewer than half of the students at his Normandy school are practicing Catholics.
“It’s been crucial to us to communicate that welcoming attitude,” Reft said.
The neighborhoods around St. Ann’s church aren’t as Catholic anymore, either, as populations have changed.
“A lot of Catholic schools don’t always mirror their community or their neighborhood,” Reft said. “And ours is getting closer and closer, I think.”
Fifth-grader Nicholas Acklin transferred from St. Angela Merici in Florissant, which was closed last year because of low enrollment. He’s being raised Christian but not Catholic. His mother, Alicia Acklin, said faith and structured classes are very important to his education. Choosing St. Ann’s was “the best fit for us and for Nicholas as far as school goes,” she said.
As parish-run elementary schools struggle to fill desks, the archdiocese is closing some buildings and merging others, including combining Our Lady of Sorrows and St. Joan of Arc into South City Catholic Academy.
“We don’t want to lose that identity of two worshipping communities that are vibrant,” St. Joan of Arc pastor, Father Craig Holway said.
The archdiocese also is trying to appeal to traditionally strong Catholic families by increasing recruitment of Hispanics and starting a scholarship fund for the traditional bread-and-butter Catholic school attendees: middle-class whites.
“These are the children of firefighters and police officers,” the archdiocese’s Superintendent of Education Kurt Nelson said. “A lot of those families are Catholic so for us as a church, that’s a group we need to reach out to.”
But Nelson said schools will stay in non-Catholic communities because it’s seen as part of the church’s mission of spreading its teachings beyond the Catholic population.