Amid impassioned pleas and shouts of criticism, the faithful at Incarnation Parish in Palos Heights learned unequivocally last Thursday that their school will permanently close in June.
And now many parents and students are wondering where they’ll go to continue a Catholic education.
“Does anyone feel that the Archdiocese went through the motions and took advantage of us?” shouted Jim Breslin to applause from many of the more than 125 people who were present last Thursday at Incarnation Church to hear a presentation by an Archdiocese of Chicago official.
“I feel like we didn’t get the chance,” rang out a voice from the rear of the church. “Why not give us two more weeks?”
Two more weeks of precious time is what parents and supporters of Incarnation School, 5757 W. 127th St., were hoping to obtain from the Archdiocese as it prepared its list of anticipated school closings.
Officially released last week, the list included five schools—four in the suburbs—including Incarnation and Our Lady of The Ridge School in Chicago Ridge, which temporarily staved off a threat of closing last year with a huge fundraising effort and enrollment drive that proved short-lived.
The Incarnation community had rallied in recent months in an attempt to avert a closing of its own school, raising more than $50,000 in donations in one day alone earlier this month at a gala fundraiser that drew more than 600 people.
To date, the drive has collected at least $153,000 in addition to money already in the bank but Archdiocese officials called for a total of $600,000 to cover costs of the 2017/18 school year and the proposed 2018/19 school year. Parents said enough money for all but next year’s expenses is on hand; that some money for next year’s expenses is already banked; and that they were well on their way to acquiring the rest.
The goal of school supporters and organizers of the fundraising efforts was to buy just a bit more time, they said, to keep off the closure list and be seen as a viable option for parents of the Our Lady of The Ridge (OLR) school to enroll their children at Incarnation. The schools are three miles apart.
The number of students at each school is below the mandate of the Archdiocese, but Incarnation supporters felt that a combined enrollment would keep their school alive.
But their dreams were not realized.
Photo by Anthony Caciopo
Tom McGrath, CEO of Chicago Catholic Schools, talks about the decision to close Incarnation School this coming June, citing low enrollment and lack of sustaining funds.
“We recognize the pain and emotion that is present,” said Tom McGrath, chief executive officer of Chicago Catholic Schools as he opened last Thursday’s meeting. “There’s not enough church-going demand to fill (some) Catholic schools. That’s the heart and the sadness behind—in part—what you are experiencing in your parish school.”
McGrath used a projector and a screen to show a graph of Incarnation enrollment since 2013, a downward trajectory that began at 211 students and ended with the current count of 143.
“We see this decline at many, many schools in the Archdiocese, notwithstanding excellent programs,” he said.
Barely more than a handful of minutes into the meeting that ultimately lasted two hours, the congregation began pushing back on McGrath.
“I don’t want to hear your numbers now,” said a parent. “I want to know what I need to do going forward with my child.”
The uncertainty and anger expressed by many parents who wondered how they can continue Catholic education for their children made for an unusual scene inside a normally reverent and quiet place of worship.
McGrath’s presentation was repeatedly interrupted by attendees who challenged him and the Archdiocese at virtually every turn. The CEO for the most part let the meeting attendees speak their minds as comments flew from pew to pew, some in controlled tones and some with palpable emotion.
No parishioners at the meeting argued with the reality of declining numbers in enrollment. Rather, they felt that church officials, even their own pastor, knew long ago how dire the circumstances were becoming and did little or nothing to communicate the financial concerns to the congregation and create a plan to fix the situation.
The Incarnation School Board was visited last September by representatives from the Archdiocese, who informed board members of the school’s very precarious condition. Many in the Incarnation community said they were caught completely off-guard.
How did we get to this spot?” said Colleen Breslin. “A select few people were of this knowledge. The rest of the people, although we were in church and heard the financial system wasn’t great…never was it put forth. The parish has always supported the school, so why would we think anything different?”
“If you knew about this decline for say, 7-10 years, where has the planning from the Archdiocese been?” said another woman.
Linda O’Leary, who has a daughter attending Incarnation, said “It’s up to your administration to come to the parents. We didn’t get that. From 2015 until now, can you imagine what we would have done to keep our school open if our parents knew about it?”
CEO McGrath told the attendees, “Back in 2015, to lose 50 kids in two years, nobody expected that to occur. The Archdiocese can’t pay for empty seats. We’ll bankrupt ourselves, we’ll bankrupt our schools.”
Addressing the prospect of Incarnation and Our Lady combining enrollments, McGrath gave an example from recent years of six Archdiocese schools that were scheduled to be combined. Two chose to “go it alone,” he said, leaving four parishes to be combined into two locations.
“Of the two locations that closed (of the four remaining), what percentage of families went to the newly defined school?” he asked. “Twenty percent. There was a lot of flight from the schools they felt had lost.”
Speaking on behalf of Cardinal Blasé J. Cupich, said McGrath, “that figure was a key litmus test in saying ‘how can we do this.’”
Parishioners pointed out two schools in Lemont, St. Al’s and St. Pat’s, that had successfully combined.
“Other parishes have tried and some have held on,” said McGrath. “This is only solved in the medium-term with tons of extra cash. You can’t really grow out of this (via enrollment) in our environment,” he said, claiming there would always be a massive capital debt annually, citing demographics that show the school-age population is declining.
“Even if the school (Incarnation) had recruited 40 more kids, the cash component was still well more than a quarter million dollars unraised,” McGrath said.
Another factor working against a proposed Incarnation/OLR combination is timing, he said.
“Say we (the Archdiocese) said ‘Let’s give them until March 31,’ and you hit March 31 and you don’t make it (sufficient enrollment and fundraising). Then, families may be unable to get to the school they want and they’ll be scrambling,” McGrath said.
“Even if you assume that the OLR community would come here with the knowledge of risk, it’s a huge assumption, it really is, that the OLR families would move from their situation in large numbers to another one not unlike it. It was not a high expectation,” McGrath said.
There were few voices at the meeting that were contrary to the majority point of view, but a man identified as “Mike” said the school’s predicament was no surprise to him.
“I understand tensions are high,” he said. “I got married on that altar 20 years ago. I’ve sat here 20 years in a row and listened to that stewardship report and every time it has been that the school has been underperforming.
“I realize it’s probably not a popular thing in this room, but it’s unfair to characterize this current leadership as being the only problem. I’ve heard time and time again that the school is a financial draw on the parish.”
By “current leadership,” Mike was referring to Rev. Arek Fallan, Incarnation’s pastor since 2015. Fallan was strongly criticized at the meeting by at least two parents who questioned whether he withheld information about the seriousness of the school’s situation.
Fallan sat in the first occupied pew at the meeting and did not speak.
With McGrath’s first slide about the decline in enrollment still on the screen after almost two hours, the microphone was turned over to Rev. Ronald Mass, who retired as pastor at Incarnation three-and-a-half years ago.
Mass, a seemingly beloved person by most, if not all Incarnation parishioners, had been an enthusiastic supporter of the school’s drive to stay open. But with emotions running high throughout the lengthy meeting, he sought to soothe.
“There’s all kinds of people here who are heavily invested in the parish and the school and there’s some who really worked their tails off the last few months,” he said.
“It didn’t work. Could things have been done differently along the line? Sure. I could have done things differently. How many conversations did I have when I was still pastor about how many years we have left,” Mass said.
“The patient was sick. The school was on the edge. We talked about that. Enrollment declined even more the last couple years. It was a trend every year,” he said.
“The parish school I went to closed,” said Mass, who has been a priest in the Archdiocese for 48 years. “The school of my young priesthood—closed. The school where I first pastored—closed. Even the parish I administered for six months—closed. It’s just inevitable. I think everyone is doing their best to see what they can do, to hold it together as best they can.
“Finally, I think, Cardinal Supich has got the devil by the tail,” he said, referring to the Archdiocese’s Renew My Church initiative. “I think he’s trying to do something solid and visionary, and that’s not always easy.”
The Archdiocese of Chicago, the third largest in the United States, serves more than 2.2 million Catholics in 344 parishes in Cook and Lake Counties, a geographic area of 1,411 square miles, according to the organization’s news releases. More than 76,00 students are enrolled in 214 Catholic schools.
“Things are going to change and people are going to have losses. That’s going to hurt. What we need to do is fall back on our faith as disciples of Jesus Christ, we have to be open to the Holy Spirit, and where the Spirit is going to move us, we don’t know.”
Shortly before Rev. Mass told the meeting attendees to hold hands and come together in prayer, he said “We worked hard to preserve the past, and now we’ve got to work hard to create the future.”