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How the future of Catholic education in the Belleville Diocese is changing

Bishop Michael McGovern of the Diocese of Belleville stands before the Cathedral of St. Peter last month in Belleville.
Joshua Carter
/
Belleville News-Democrat
Bishop Michael McGovern of the Diocese of Belleville stands before the Cathedral of St. Peter last month in Belleville.

Editor's note: This story was originally published in the Belleville News-Democrat.

In January, the Diocese of Belleville announced it would be closing two Catholic schools in the metro-east at the end of the school year — Notre Dame Academy in Belleville and St. Ann Grade School in Nashville.

Twenty-three elementary schools and three high schools remain in the diocese. At its peak in the 1965-66 school year, it had 70 elementary schools — including one special education school — and eight high schools, according to the diocese.

Total student enrollment in the Belleville Diocese has decreased by 14.4% over the past decade — close to the national average of 14.2% — and by nearly 78.4% since the mid-1960s peak, when total enrollment was 23,759, diocesan data shows.

Across the river in Missouri, the larger St. Louis Archdiocese shuttered three grade schools last spring under its “All Things New” downsizing plan to address the decreasing number of Catholics, priests and schoolchildren, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

The BND sat down with Bishop Michael McGovern to discuss how Catholic schools in the Belleville Diocese are funded, what factors are considered in a school closure, what the future of Catholic education in the diocese looks like and more.

McGovern became the diocese’s ninth bishop in 2020, succeeding the retiring Bishop Edward Braxton.

How are schools in the Belleville Diocese funded?

Schools are funded through parish subsidies — with most of those funds coming from Sunday collections — tuition and fees from families, fundraisers like dinner-dances and bingo, and gifts from benefactors and bequests, McGovern said.

Not every parish has a school, however, as was the case with Notre Dame Academy for several years.

Notre Dame was the result of a 2015 consolidation of Cathedral Grade School with the previously-merged St. Mary-St. Augustine School after enrollment at Cathedral declined to 128, according to a diocesan fact sheet.

In instances like this, one parish ends up paying most of the subsidy for the school, which can be difficult, McGovern said.

In the fall of 2023, St. Mary and St. Augustine’s sponsorship of Notre Dame Academy ended, the fact sheet states.

The diocese has had ongoing conversations about what percentage of a parish’s revenue should go to the school, because if the percentage gets too high, say around 60%, then the parish doesn’t have the money it needs for maintenance and other needs, McGovern added.

Previously, the diocese was also receiving about $900,000 through the “Invest in Kids” tax credit scholarship program Illinois enacted in 2017, McGovern said.

The program allowed individuals or businesses to donate to scholarship-granting organizations that then distributed the money to students from low-income families to help pay their private school tuition. Donors received a 75% tax credit.

Last year, the state didn’t renew the program as opponents argued that it diverted taxpayer dollars to private schools. Advocates argued it gave children from low-income families the ability to attend schools usually only available to wealthier families.

McGovern said the Catholic Conference of Illinois is going to lobby the state legislature to bring back the program. “It gave parents an option,” he said.

What goes into closing a school?

The shuttering of Notre Dame and St. Ann’s were his first direct experience with school closings in his four years as a bishop, McGovern said.

The process for closing a school begins with a principal and pastor coming to the diocese and saying their school is at a point where it needs to be closed or that closure needs to be considered, he said.

The bishop and the diocese’s Education Advisory Board then convene, as they did last December, to weigh the various factors before making a final decision.

McGovern said that if the diocese is considering whether to close a school, he likes to ask the hypothetical question: If the school or parish wasn’t here, would we open it today?

“I find that’s a very freeing question,” he said. If the answer is there’s not enough people, “well, that tells you something.”

There are several factors that go into the consideration of closing a school, McGovern said. Those factors include:

  • Demographics, including projections for how many Catholic children there will be in a parish in the next few years based on baptisms and preschool enrollment, among other things
  • Enrollment figures
  • Facilities, including whether there are significant upkeep expenses, like replacing a boiler
  • The financial health of the parish

He said the diocese also looks at a school’s strengths.
“It’s not just a question of the money, but money is a very important factor,” McGovern said.

Another challenge for schools in the Belleville Diocese has been finding principals, who have to be practicing Catholics, he said.

Notre Dame Academy last January in Belleville.
Joshua Carter
/
Belleville News-Democrat
Notre Dame Academy last January in Belleville.

Are there any further school closures being considered?

“I don’t know, sitting here today, if there would be some situation that would require change,” McGovern said. “But … change isn’t just closure. Change could also be things like consolidation.”

There are places in the Belleville Diocese where there’s concern, but consolidation can be an opportunity, he said.

“I’ve seen this happen when I was a priest in Chicago, where, when schools didn’t cooperate with each other, that one after another, they closed,” he said. “I think there’s an advantage sometimes to say, why don’t several schools work together in a unified way, and choose the future and have a stronger school that’s going to be here five years from now and 10 years from now, because we made good decisions at a critical moment.”

McGovern pointed out that there are four schools in the diocese that have expanded in recent years with building additions: St. Clare Catholic School in O’Fallon, St. Andrew School in Murphysboro, St. Bruno Catholic School in Pinckneyville and All Saints Academy in Breese.

What does the future of Catholic education look like in the Belleville Diocese?

“I have a strong commitment to Catholic education,” McGovern said.

Both of his parents were teachers, and he attended a Catholic grammar school, high school and college, he said.

“I believe in Catholic education,” McGovern said. “Of all the different ministries we have, I think education is something we’ve done very well, especially in the United States.”

He added that he has visited all of the diocese’s schools at least once in the four years since he became bishop.

“I enjoy visiting the children, the teachers,” he said. “They’re really the future of the church.”

Bolstering Catholic schools requires thinking “outside the box,” McGovern said.

For example, he’s been looking to strengthen the diocese’s connection with homeschooling families by developing a hybrid approach in which children attend a Catholic school for half a day and are homeschooled for half a day.

Supporting Catholic school teachers, who are paid less than they would be in the public school system, is also paramount, he said.

“We have to keep looking for ways that we can thank our teachers and strengthen our support for them,” McGovern said.

“There’s an enormous amount of work to do, I think, on the horizon for us to really try and have strong, vibrant Catholic schools in southern Illinois, but I think there’s a lot of support there, and we just have to keep working at it.”

Kelly Smits is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

Kelly Smits is the education and environment reporter at the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.