News and Tribune

January 24, 2013

MORRIS: St. Mary’s school closing calls for unity

By CHRIS MORRIS
chris.morris@newsandtribune.com

— Maybe I am the wrong person to be writing about this issue. I am way too close to the subject matter and am boiling with passion about my church and school. 

Most first-year journalism students understand that creates a conflict of interest. 

But maybe that is why I am writing about the closure of St. Mary’s Catholic Academy. It’s personal and I, along with many others, have been in a daze since last week.

It all began last Thursday. Sitting in the eighth-grade classroom at the school — a place I had been many times before — I, along with a few others, were told the academy would close at the end of the school year. 

As a member of the Parish Council, I was given the official announcement an hour before the parents of the school’s students. But there were no surprises. Everyone knew what was coming when they received a note to attend a special meeting. 

We were all aware of the $1.2 million debt the church/school has amassed over the past eight years. We knew there was always a possibility the school would be closed by the Archdiocese of Indianapolis if our financial situation didn’t improve. But no one thought the announcement would come Jan. 17, 2013.

Of course, along with the announcement — which was a punch in the stomach to most — comes the finger-pointing and blame game. Why didn’t this person do this? Why couldn’t we recruit more students? 

After all, it has to be someone’s fault. Someone has to take the responsibility, right?

Wrong! There is no one to blame for this decision. It’s not the school administration’s fault and it’s not the Rev. Harry Tully’s fault. It was a business decision made by the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, pure and simple.

Principal Jeff Purichia has done wonders at that school in the three years he has been in charge. Father Tully was handed this mess when he arrived four years ago and has done everything possible to keep the school open and to help it prosper. He doesn’t want to see it closed. That is not his wish. 

But some have lashed out at him, and that is human nature I guess. We have to blame someone — why not the guy in the collar.  

It’s hard to ignore the facts. The school sits in the inner city and no longer draws children from the surrounding neighborhood like it once did. A few decades ago, 22 students with the last name of Traughber, Schaffner or Schindler attended either St. Mary’s or the old Holy Trinity Catholic School on Market Street. 

Those 22 students resided on the same dead end street in the St. Mary’s neighborhood — Greenaway Place. But today, there are probably not 22 students from a 10-mile area around St. Mary’s who attend the school, let alone one street. 

Times have changed and money is tight for many folks. Providing a Catholic education is no longer financially feasible for many, or as important to others.

What we don’t need at this time is a split congregation — church versus school. We have to be unified, support one another and begin the healing process that needs to occur following the internal turmoil and tension the past week has brought. I never want to sit through weekend Masses again where tension and anger take center stage over the word of God.  

While I was not shocked by the news of the school’s closure — knowing the debt we have amassed — I was a little surprised the archdiocese didn’t give us some kind of warning, or heads up, that 2013 could be the last for the school unless something drastic occurred. I never got that sense of urgency.

I think we should do everything we can to keep our school open. We should appeal, we should plead our case and not go down without a fight. But we shouldn’t damage relationships or throw others under the bus if the decision remains to close the school after May 31. St. Mary’s Catholic Church will go on, and we must do everything we can to move our church community forward.

I sent two children through St. Mary’s Catholic Academy and my wife and I coached volleyball at the school for more than 10 years. We have developed so many friendships from our experience as school parents and coaches. I can’t say enough about the teachers, past and present, who have helped shape so many lives and provided such a quality education for my daughters and thousands of others.

I love St. Mary’s and its people. We are all angry and upset by this decision. However, we can’t be totally surprised or act like we had no idea this was possible. Most of us knew the debt we were incurring by just reading the weekly bulletin. When you owe someone $1.2 million, there is always that possibility they will say “pay up.” And that is basically what the archdiocese has done — cut up our credit card. 

We must stay unified and do what we can to try and keep our beloved school open. But we must do it without losing our faith or throwing false accusations at those who do not deserve it. 

Let’s stop the finger-pointing.

— Chris Morris is assistant editor at the News and Tribune. Reach him via email at chris.morris@newsandtribune.com or 812-206-2155.