Toward the Third Millennium: Catholics Down South

While pundits and commentators either commend or decry the political “Southernization” of the rest of the country, one wonders if theologians, priests, and churchgoers might some day remark the “Catholicization” of the South. Most Southern clergy will tell you it’s not likely.

Still, in the New South capital of Atlanta, some interesting trends are afoot. Yankee Catholics are pouring in, swelling the ranks of saint worshippers, voodoo-water sprinklers, and rosary sayers at a rate of what comes out to be 100 percent every five years. According to Monsignor Edward Dillon, a stern, ruddy-cheeked Irishman and the vicar general of the Atlanta archdiocese, this growth rate or better is expected to last through the year 2011.

Granted, the current Catholic population numbers somewhere around 220,000 souls, which doesn’t amount to a notch on the Bible Belt. Even so, it can be said with a certain degree of conviction that the days when Catholics and Protestants came to blows, at least in this city, are becoming a distant memory.

Also a distant memory, but one that remains at the front of Monsignor Dillon’s mind, is the historic migration of Irish Catholics to Georgia in the late nineteenth century. What happened, he explains, was regrettable: “They came here and found no priests, no parishes and no schools. And they drifted.” Unless the archdiocese stays ahead of its game, he cautions, “history could repeat itself.” In fact, administrators in the Atlanta archdiocese have been working for years to ensure that Catholic drift doesn’t happen all over again. The fruit of their labor is a vocations program noted as one of the largest in the nation, along with a slew of mission churches. And these churches are filling up fast.

Indeed, present-day Catholic life here couldn’t be more vibrant. In all quarters of the burgeoning community, there is a vigor that leaves newcomers from more established Catholic areas across the country somewhat aghast. From the fiery singles ministry at Christ the King Cathedral, to Mother Teresa’s home for women dying of AIDS, to the legacy of Catholic culture left by Emory University professor Arthur Evans—whether it be in worship or service or work—the Catholic Church in Atlanta has at least one thing in common with the city’s much talked about economy: It’s booming.

School Crunch

This growth is particularly evident where Catholic education is concerned. Take local real estate agents, for instance. The questions these agents hear most from new Catholic parents, says Monsignor Dillon, have to do with schools. They are, “Where is the nearest Catholic school?” and “What are the chances of our children being admitted?” Whatever the answer to the first question, he explains, the answer to the second, at least for the last ten years, has increasingly been “Not much.”

All of the city’s nine Catholic grade schools are full and, except for the two inner-city schools, they are deluged with applicants. Most Atlanta Catholics anticipate that it will be easier to get their children into college than to get them into a Catholic grade school. Of course, argues Martin Gatins, chairman of an Atlanta-based foundation particularly interested in Catholic education, this should not surprise anyone. “We don’t have 150 to 200 years’ worth of Catholic parishes; the educational infrastructure needed to accommodate incoming Catholics simply isn’t here.”

But eighteen months ago, while doing some foundation-related work, Gatins stumbled across a good deal of infrastructure situated on a prime piece of property in north Atlanta—and in need of a buyer. What came of it, after a great amount of work, is the first private Catholic grade school in the city. It is the first Catholic school to open here in ten years. Named for the second Atlanta archbishop, Thomas A. Donnellan, the school opened its doors to one hundred uniformed youngsters in September. There is still construction work to be done on the facility and tuition costs are considerable, but, according to the office of current Archbishop John Francis Donoghue, the Donnellan School stands as a harbinger of the major expansion and financial overhaul planned for Catholic education in Atlanta during the years to come. “Our vision for this archdiocese,” relates a spokesperson for the archbishop, “has to do with dismissing the commonly held belief that Catholic education is doomed.”

The way things are going, Atlanta might just find itself an unlikely paradigm during a new heyday for Catholic schools in America.

Sister Dawn

The last Catholic school to open in the Atlanta area—St. John Neumann in Lilburn, just north of the city—was opened by Archbishop Donnellan himself in 1986, the last year of his nineteen-year tenure. Just eight years later, the regional grade school was named a Blue Ribbon School of Excellence by the U.S. Department of Education, one of twenty-three such Catholic schools in the nation. The school’s principal, Sister Dawn Gear, recently received her share of recognition as well. In September, she was honored by the U.S. secretary of education as one of America’s four outstanding private grade school principals.

Sister Dawn, a silver-haired Pennsylvania native in her fifties and a notorious go-getter, is now principal of the Donnellan School, which serves grades kindergarten through five and will eventually expand to include grades six through eight. “Archbishop Donnellan asked me to open St. John Neumann ten years ago,” she explains, “and I figured I’d do this one for him, too.”

Sister Dawn has brought a sort of entourage with her to make sure the job is done right. They are: Sister Rita Raffaele, the assistant principal at St. John Neumann and the only other nun working at the school; St. John Neumann’s librarian; a teacher; and a family. Sister Dawn even recruited the independent contractor who handled a major expansion at St. John Neumann last year to work on the addition and renovation work at Donnellan; he is a Catholic and has just enrolled his children at St. John Neumann.

Those who have moved to Donnellan give a few reasons for doing so. Some say the excitement of opening a new school appealed to them; others say the smaller student-teacher ratio at Donnellan (eighteen to one) was important; but all claim that the exemplary leadership of Sister Dawn along with her educational philosophy had a great deal to do with their decision to change schools. Father Thomas Francis, a Trappist monk at Our Lady of the Holy Spirit Monastery in near-by Conyers and a longtime acquaintance of Sister Dawn, describes the phenomenon this way: “People follow Sister Dawn because she is putting the backbone back into Catholic education. Catholic parents in this country—with conservatives at the fore—are ready for this.”

To Sister Dawn, educational backbone means three things—gospel values, academics, and discipline. Here is Sister Dawn on values: “We teach love of God and love of neighbor. If a parent doesn’t want his or her child participating in things religious, I suggest that maybe this isn’t the school for them. In general, parents who are paying tuition are paying it because they want us to reinforce Catholic values. They don’t want their kids in a setting where it’s illegal to mention God.”

On academics: “Catholic schools believe in building an academic foundation, in teaching the basics. We must teach basic skills because only then can a child’s intelligence begin to grow. We teach phonics, for instance, which is now taboo in public schools, and we teach grammar and sentence structure. What good is it for a child to write creatively if he can’t write a sentence?”

On discipline: “If there is discipline and order, then learning will take place. But discipline must center on respect, not on punishment. If a student misbehaves, for instance, he must learn that he is taking away from the other students’ experience and that there may be consequences for his actions—he might have to sit on the other side of the room for thirty minutes. Regardless, lessons like these build character and that’s what we want to do.”

Catholic Classrooms

The standards touted by Sister Dawn are the standards that Catholic education has always strived to uphold. But since the ’60s, Catholic education has experienced a kind of painful metamorphosis that, in many instances, has weakened the theological and ideological foundations of the parochial school system. During Vatican II, Church authorities began to acknowledge that education was costing a great deal more than what parishes and parents were actually providing. Those who had unfairly picked up the slack, conceded the authorities, were the religious running the schools.

Father Francis, who is also a Church historian, says, “The teaching nuns were being used as cheap labor. Thousands of them, having been allowed to draw only a pitiful stipend, are without retirement today.” Between 1965 and 1985, large numbers of religious renounced their callings. Others left teaching for alternative areas of service. In fact, many orders that were founded as teaching orders, like the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart, to which Sister Dawn and Sister Rita belong, now have very few members left in the educational field. For their part, Sister Dawn and Sister Rita are the only Atlanta-based Grey Nuns still working in a school.

But it wasn’t all bitterness and gall that spawned the mass exodus of religious from Catholic education. One of the effects of Vatican II was the expansion of women’s roles in Church life. Many nuns left teaching simply because they were interested in doing other things. Nonetheless, the unhappy result over the last several decades has been the closure of innumerable Catholic schools and the virtual extinction of parochial education as it was known by generations of American Catholics.

While the old parochial school has, for the most part, disappeared, a new version has gradually come up in its place and is beginning to flourish. Staffed mostly by lay teachers, Catholic schools are now without some of the hallmarks that come to mind when we think of the old way. No rulers are being snapped over the knuckles of willful students and few immigrant children fill the desks of today’s parochial classrooms. Yet, at least in more conservative schools like Donnellan, the tried-and-true fundamentals of Catholic education, thanks to administrators like Sister Dawn, have been revitalized. And there are many Catholics, both clergy and lay people, who believe that as the manifold woes of public education are further exposed, parochial education in this country—New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s efforts notwithstanding—will experience a new ascent. In Atlanta, unlike many northeastern cities where the Catholic system is still being consolidated, that ascent feels something like a revival.

It’s not just that the demand for Catholic education in Atlanta is great. With so few Catholic schools and so much Catholic growth, it only makes sense that parochial school admissions offices would be inundated with applications. The measure of Catholic education’s success in this archdiocese, rather, according to teachers and administrators, is the enthusiasm of the parents who actually have their children enrolled in Catholic schools.

Kindergarten teacher Barbara Tomes, who taught at St. John Neumann for nine years and who now teaches at Donnellan, says that while she sees more mothers working and sending their children to day care now than ever before, the parents she works with are just as rigorous as they ever were about putting their children’s needs first and about participating regularly in her classroom. One mother, she recalls, changed her work schedule and pulled her child out of a detrimental daycare situation. A good number of fathers take time off to work in the classroom and parents constantly donate supplies for various school activities. Donnellan Home and School Association president Lisa Perez says that she has yet to find a Donnellan parent who cannot make time to help with school events.

Total Immersion

What this fresh display of ardor reflects, explains Father Francis, is that Catholic parents in Atlanta and certainly elsewhere are “battening down the hatches against the moral decline that our nation is experiencing. They want total immersion for their children in a strong, Catholic environment.” Ideally, of course, explains Father Richard Lopez, a religion teacher at Atlanta’s St. Pius X High School, “Parents should be seeking what lies at the heart of Catholic schooling: the presentation of Christ as the Way, the Truth and the Life.” Many, no doubt, are also looking to secure good lives for their children. But, according to Father Francis, there is, in addition, a kind of “apocalyptic element” that figures into the recent push for parochial education. With today’s world in such turmoil, he explains, many Catholics want to make sure that if everything falls apart tomorrow, their children are in the right camp.

Whatever the reason for Catholic education’s reemergence as an important force in the lives of American families, one thing, says Sister Dawn, is for certain: No school can survive without the help of parents. “As educators,” she explains, “we complement what parents are doing at home and we need their input. The problem today is that with both parents working in so many cases, children do not get enough attention. And until that changes, I don’t care how good a school claims to be or how many innovative programs it institutes, it will not be successful.” At least at Donnellan, she offers, even the parents who are the least involved on campus have a stake in what’s going on there because they pay a sizable tuition—they’re making a sacrifice. Public schools, of course, do not have this built-in guarantor of parental concern. So at a time in our country’s history when parent involvement seems to be at a record low, it is in a sense inevitable, Sister Dawn opines, that public education is foundering like never before.

If sacrifice were the only measure of a parent’s worth, then many Atlanta parents, so far as parochial school tuition is concerned, would rank in the top percentile. As any Catholic parent here will tell you, it’s one thing to talk about parochial school tuition, but it’s quite another to talk about parochial school tuition in Atlanta. Whatever you might pay to send your child to parochial school each year in the Northeast, double, triple, or quadruple that amount and you will have the Atlanta equivalent. “It always shocks new parents,” says Donnellan teacher Barbara Tomes. “They get to Atlanta and the cost of education blows them away.” The higher-end parochial school tuition rates are around $2,700 per year; Donnellan, which is a private school, costs $6,700.

The high cost of education has to do with the relative size of the Atlanta Catholic community, which doesn’t compare with Catholic communities in northern areas. Small parishes simply cannot subsidize education the way larger parishes can. Even with tuition costs being what they are, Atlanta parishes remain strapped with little room to assist underprivileged parents. What this situation inevitably amounts to is the exclusion of the very poor—for whom the parochial school system was originally designed—from Catholic education. Though Atlanta Catholic schools still manage to educate students from fairly mixed economic backgrounds, many parents fear that if things don’t change, Catholic school students may increasingly prove to be the children of Atlanta’s wealthy elites.

New Financing

The archdiocese doesn’t believe that the Catholic schools here will become elitist, but it does believe that some heavy financial restructuring would make them more accessible to lower-income families, and, just as important, facilitate the growth of infrastructure that the archdiocese so desperately needs. Otherwise, says Monsignor Dillon, “We’re in trouble.” While many dioceses in dire straits are pushing for the approval of school vouchers in their state legislatures with the hope that rerouted tax dollars will revitalize parochial schools, the Atlanta archdiocese is cautious about looking to vouchers for relief. Archbishop Donoghue, whose policies are mostly conservative, is concerned that there may be strings attached to what, in some eyes, ultimately amounts to federal or state money, and he remains less than enthusiastic about the prospect.

Currently, the financial arrangement between parents and Catholic schools is pretty straightforward. Parents pay a flat tuition rate, which is lower than the actual cost of educating their child; a school’s host parish and the child’s parish together make up the difference with a subsidy. Right now parishes are able to pay their subsidies but are doing little better than breaking even. To prevent parochial education from hitting a dead end, an archdiocesan financial committee has a plan in the works that would raise the base tuition rate so that the parents who could pay more would be required to do so. The parish subsidy would shrink, and more money would be on hand to assist those families unable to pay the full amount. Plus, schools would have the resources for necessary renovation projects. In short, a more just educational system would evolve.

On top of revamping school finance, the Atlanta archdiocese will soon launch a major Catholic campaign through which it hopes to raise as much as fifty-six million dollars in the next three to five years. The bulk of the money will go toward the construction of new schools, renovation work and tuition assistance. What the campaign will benefit from, relates Martin Gatins, is “a conservative business community interested in cultivating strong values and discipline.” Because Catholic education has always stood for these, he explains, “foundation executives and business leaders will feel confident about what they’re getting for their money.” Which is a good thing, says Monsignor Dillon, at a time when the preservation of the Catholic school system seems more necessary than ever before. “What we have to do,” he says, “at least from a business standpoint, is continue to come up with creative approaches to ensure our survival. I suppose you could say that the Atlanta Catholic school system at this juncture is kind of like a dinosaur. Either it will adapt and flourish, or it will die. I, of course, believe it will be the former.”

  • Stacy Mattingly

    At the time this article was published, Stacy Mattingly was a writer living in Atlanta, Georgia.

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