Today, following stops at the United Nations and the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, Pope Francis will travel to one of the poorest neighborhoods in New York City to meet with students and faculty at Our Lady Queen of Angels, a Catholic elementary school in East Harlem. This visit will bring Francis close to some of the most marginalized individuals in the city. Over 35 percent of the residents in East Harlem live below the poverty line. The neighborhood has the city’s highest jobless rate and the second highest concentration of public housing in the United States. Rates of teen pregnancy, drug abuse and AIDS are about five times the national average in this area.
Along with focusing on the marginalized, Francis’ visit will shine a light on the challenges facing Catholic education in the United States. Three other inner-city Catholic schools will take part in the visit: St. Ann School, St. Charles Borromeo School and St. Paul School. “Our Holy Father is visiting our school, it’s certainly going to amplify attention on the good things that are happening in Catholic schools,” says Joanne Walsh, principal of Our Lady Queen of Angels.
The Decline of Catholic Schools
Pope Francis’ visit to Our Lady Queen of Angels comes at a crucial time for Catholic education. During the 1960s, enrollment in Catholic schools was at an all-time high in the United States, with over 5 million students in over 12,000 schools. By 2009, however, student enrollment had dropped to less than half.
Most affected have been Catholic elementary schools, particularly those serving communities of color, the poor and immigrant families. According to the National Catholic Educational Association, elementary school enrollment has declined by 30 percent in 12 of the largest urban dioceses and 20.4 percent in the rest of the United States just since 2005.
Why are so many Catholic schools failing? Decreases in resources and enrollment rates have led to archdioceses and parishes across the country struggling to find ways to support schools. In the New York Archdiocese, for example, there are about 245 Catholic elementary and high schools with less than 75,000 students, a huge decline from the enrollment of the 1960s. Since 2011, the archdiocese has closed some 60 schools. Catholic systems in urban dioceses have had to contend with a flight to the suburbs among the better-off, as well as the decline of religious vocations and its impact on staffing costs.
A Helping Hand
Founded in 1892, Our Lady Queen of Angels offers students a demanding, well-rounded curriculum rooted in the Gospel. With an emphasis on “the whole child,” Ms. Walsh and her team focus on “the intellectual, spiritual and emotional development” of students. With almost 300 students enrolled in pre-K through eighth grade, the student body is 69 percent Hispanic and 22 percent African-American.
Our Lady Queen of Angels is one of six schools within the Partnership for Inner-City Education, a nonprofit school management organization. Its goals are to help Catholic schools within its network develop operationally and financially—for example, to maximize enrollment, improve efficiency and provide low-income students with the “academic preparation, values, and skills they will need to break the cycle of poverty and lead fulfilling, productive lives.”
In July 2013, the Partnership signed an agreement with the Archdiocese of New York. Under this agreement, Our Lady Queen of Angels and five other struggling Catholic elementary schools in Harlem and the South Bronx would be managed by the Partnership—the first time the archdiocese allowed an outside, independent organization to manage its schools. Over 65 percent of the student body at Our Lady Queen of Angels receives financial assistance and/or scholarships. A huge portion of this aid is provided through the school’s affiliation with the Partnership.
I spoke with two students at Our Lady Queen of Angels, Allison Reyes-Rodriguez and Nicholas Marronaro, about their Catholic school experience. Allison, a third grader, loves Our Lady Queen of Angels because the school places a great emphasis on teaching students about God, which allows them to “get closer to God in [their] hearts.” Nicholas, a fourth grader, loves that the school is open and welcoming. He adds that Our Lady Queen of Angels is a place where you can truly be Catholic, describing it as “a really awesome feeling.”
Ms. Walsh also emphasizes how crucial Catholic education is for the immigrant population. Moving to the United States is often an overwhelming experience for immigrants, particularly for families who do not easily speak English, which is a second language for over 40 percent of the parents at Our Lady Queen of Angels. Walsh adds, “It is part of our school culture to welcome the immigrant,” to work with them and let them know “that we are here.”
An Interfaith Discourse
St. Charles Borromeo, an elementary school in Central Harlem founded in 1904, will also participate in the pope’s visit next week. The school’s motto emphasizes the child as a “unique creation of God, endowed with gifts and talents to be nurtured and developed.” Unlike Our Lady Queen of Angels, where 70 percent of the student body is Catholic, less than 30 percent of students at St. Charles are Catholic.
I spoke with Aleeya Francis, the principal of St. Charles. She reiterates Pope Francis’ message on those living on the edges. “We will not find the Lord unless we truly accept the marginalized,” she says, adding that serving the marginalized is what St. Charles does for its Central Harlem community, since a large portion of the student body lives below the poverty line.
Ms. Francis also emphasizes how important Catholic education is for a predominantly non-Catholic student body. “They need to know that all things are possible because of God,” she says.
“Most of our children are of different faiths,” says Ms. Francis, “but in the end, they all worship God. This is extremely important because it gives them some foundation. It allows them to build on their moral character. It allows them to see that there is something bigger and greater than themselves as individuals.”
“We believe in teaching and reaching out to the temporal and spiritual parts of the child,” she adds. “They are part of both worlds. Once they understand and believe that, then they can do great things.”
Essa Nahshal, a fourth grader at St. Charles, was born to Muslim parents from Yemen. I spoke with him about Pope Francis’ visit and his experience at a Catholic school. Essa is “more than super excited” to meet the head of the Catholic Church, and when asked if he would discuss his Muslim faith with the Catholic pope, the 7-year-old said that his religion has nothing to do with meeting Francis. He encourages people from all faiths to “meet the pope if they want.”
The principals, students and faculty at Our Lady Queen of Angels and St. Charles Borromeo, as well as the other two schools that will meet Pope Francis, are more than ready to meet the leader of the Catholic world. They are also excited to see a spotlight on their respective schools. Their communities, and the world, will get the chance to see how much work each school does for its students and their families.
In his address to the Congregation for Catholic Education in 2014, Pope Francis described preserving Catholic education as one of the greatest challenges facing the church. He stated that it “is guided by a changing generation, and that, therefore, every educator…is required to change.” He added that educational institutions must not be afraid to “initiate dialogue.”
Asked about her expectations for Francis’ visit, Ms. Walsh says, “We are very much, as part of our mission as Catholic schools, involved in making our children know that they are not only responsible for themselves, but for each other, for the world.” She adds, “This visit is just validating what we do each and every day.”