Conference focuses on strengthening, promoting region’s Catholic schools

SPRINGFIELD – Nearly every bishop in New England, including Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley gathered at Springfield’s Marriott Hotel March 28 to talk about the future of Catholic education.

Diocesan school superintendents in the region also attended the daylong “Conference for the Future of Catholic School Education in New England.” Some diocesan priests were also invited as a total of nearly 100 attendees considered ways to promote and strengthen Catholic education for the future.

“All of us see this as one of the most important missions of the Catholic Church,” said Cardinal O’Malley at a press conference held during the lunch break. “We’re happy to see the response today and hear what other dioceses are doing,” he said.

The conference was a response to the July 2005 U.S. bishops’ pastoral letter, “Renewing our Commitment to Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools in the Third Millennium.”

Following the release of that letter, the New England superintendents asked their bishops to come together with some of their priests and discuss ways to put some of the recommendations of the letter into practice.

A pamphlet promoting the conference said the purpose of the gathering would be to “come together... to investigate how we in the Church of New England can make this a living document.”

Springfield Bishop Timothy A. McDonnell greeted attendees of the conference, which began at 10 a.m.

“We are here to make sure Catholic schools are accessible, affordable and available,” said Dan Curtin, executive director of the Chief Administrators of Catholic Education, a department of the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA). The NCEA sponsored the conference.

Oblate Father William Davis then introduced participants to the document. Father Davis has been doing educational pubic policy work for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) since 1990 and is currently the interim secretary for education at the USCCB.

Steve Perla, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Worcester, said the most pressing needs faced by Catholic schools are the financial ones. “The biggest challenge that we have is to look at ways in which we can make sure that we can sustain our schools and make them very viable,” he said.

“We all feel, as superintendents of the New England dioceses, that the response by the bishops and by the priests has been very collaborative,” said Franciscan Sister of St. Joseph M. Andrea Ciszewski, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Springfield. “Just to have all of these people together in one room is almost like a Pentecost event for the Church.”

Sister Ciszewski said one goal of the conference was to see how dioceses in New England could implement the bishops’ document. “Very often a document is written and then time is not given to implement it. So we see it [this conference] as crucial. It’s a great time in history to do this.”

Perla said the conference was very important because it gave the superintendents the opportunity to engage in dialogue with their bishops. “Today gives us a chance to bring that document [the 2005 pastoral letter] alive and to give us an opportunity to think about how, in fact, do we implement some of the ideas in that document.”

Bishop John McCormack, of the Diocese of Manchester, N.H., said the development of a Catholic identity is important in Catholic schools today. He believes schools need to be “strong both in their Catholic values and in their academic excellence.”

“There are many ideas being thrown out there,” said Bishop McCormack. “So, our goal now, having heard a lot of this, is to meet within the diocese when we leave here and to begin to involve lay leadership about how we can make the schools accessible, affordable and available.”

Referring to some of the dialogue at the conference regarding having all parishes in a diocese contribute to the financial well-being of the Catholic schools, Bishop McDonnell said, “As Catholics, our job is to help each other and by helping each other, [we] help the community.”

He said the diocesan-wide Future of Hope capital campaign that began in 1999 established endowments for diocesan schools. He said that was one way that the entire diocese has come together in support of Catholic education.

“Catholic schools are beneficial for everyone in the diocese and for every person, whether Catholic or not,” he added.

Bishop McDonnell said the Catholic schools in the Diocese of Springfield “do a fantastic job. We have wonderful programs, wonderful teachers, and the students there are getting a fine education.”

In 1990 the U.S. Catholic bishops issued the statement “In Support of Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools.” In their 2005 letter, the bishops referred to the 1990 statement, saying: “In it we affirmed our strong conviction that Catholic elementary and secondary schools are of great value to our Church and our nation; and that, in our role as chief teachers, we are each responsible for the total educational ministry of the local Church.”

The pastoral letter also reads, “The burden of supporting our Catholic schools can no longer be placed on the individual parishes that have schools and on parents who pay tuition.”

When asked what he sees as the outcome of the conference in terms of increasing enrollment at Catholic schools, Cardinal O’Malley said, “Hopefully the strategies that are developed here will do just that.” He said they hope to come up with plans that “will be able to address the challenges that we have.”

Challenges presented to attendees included dealing with a changing Church, paying school personnel a just wage and marketing the mission of Catholic schools.

Strategies discussed at the conference addressed the possibilities of schools creating or enlarging existing endowments, seeking grants, enlisting the support of all pastors, promoting their Catholic identity and marketing themselves.

“We all believe that we have to allow the public to know more about our mission,” said Sister Ciszewski.

“We really have to look at, do people appreciate the value of Catholic education?” said Bishop McCormack. “And, by people I mean the bishops, the priests, the people in the parishes. I think we’ve had the assumption that they do, and I’m not so sure that everybody does.”

“We really need to help people appreciate the value of their faith because Catholic education is the best way of forming Catholics,” he said.

Bishop McCormack said that attendees need to go forward and make Catholic education valid in the life of others. “We’re going to do it by lifting up the vibrancy of what Catholic education is all about – it really fulfills the whole person.”

In the afternoon session of the conference, representatives of each diocese discussed ways to develop strategies that would allow them to implement what they learned at the conference. Each group then reported their ideas to the crowd.

“Some of the areas that we’re talking about today (are) new governance models, the quality of our academic program, making sure that we strengthen our Catholic identity and the role of advocacy,” said Perla. “All of those areas are very critical in terms of our long-term sustainability.”

In closing remarks, Karen Ristau, president of the NCEA, said, “We cannot fail. We are saving lives. The problems exist, but so do solutions. The solutions are in this room.”

Sister of Notre Dame Rosemary Donohue then assured participants that the “conversations will continue.”

In fact, all of the New England superintendents were invited to a follow-up meeting to be held in Worcester on May 3.