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Detroit Cardinal's Plan Could Force Some Catholic Schools To Close or Consolidate

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Roman Catholic educators in Detroit are predicting that some Catholic schools may eventually close, consolidate, or become independent of the church if the Archdiocese of Detroit carries out its plan to shut down more than one-third of the city's churches.

In a round of emotional meetings and calls for protests last week, educators expressed mixed reactions to the unprecedented Sept. 28 announcement that 43 of the 112 churches in Detroit, Hamtramck, and Highland Park would be closed next year. The two East Side suburbs are located within the city's boundaries.

Some educators said the parish consolidations would produce more financially stable churches, which could then provide more support for the schools, whose students are predominantly minority and non-Catholic.

Others, however, especially those school administrators whose parishes will be closed, said that losing their churches, with their financial and volunteer support, would push their schools one step closer to insolvency. Many said they planned to fight the measure.

Racial Split Seen

The announcement also threatens to split local Catholics along racial lines. While hundreds of lay people and clergy, including the Detroit Catholic Pastoral Alliance, vowed to protest, a group of black clergy were saying the proposed change could provide additional resources to help the city's black population, including inner-city schools.

The black clergy charged that some churches founded by European immigrants had a history of discouraging blacks from joining.

Wyatt Jones Jr., director of the archdiocesan office of black Catholic affairs, said last week that some of the city's older churches did not welcome blacks, even though their numbers were increasing in the city.

'A State of Shock'

The overwhelming reaction4among educators and clergy last week was anger at the abruptness of the announcement and the way in which officials chose to inform parishioners--on a television program. Although the officials said the consolidation had been planned over the past five years, most Catholics did not know about the process.

"Everyone was in a state of shock," said Sister Mary Leonard, principal of St. Casimir School, operated by a West Side parish that is slated to merge with a neighboring church. "No one knew anything about this prior to the television announcement."

The Archbishop of Detroit, Edmund Cardinal Szoka, answering questions from reporters last week, indicated that the archdiocese was not planning to close any schools.

"The gist of his statement was that his commitment to schools is unwavering," said Brenda Marshall, a spokesman for the archdiocese. "At this point, we haven't looked at schools so much. It's mainly a study of the churches."

The archdiocese is trying to portray the consolidations in a positive light, Ms. Marshall said. "We hope this will have a beneficial effect on the schools as a result of having more vibrant parishes," she added.

As of late last week, the archdiocese could not say how many schools are operated by the affected parishes. But listings in a national directory of private schools suggest that nearly half of the 43 parishes may be associated with an elementary or high school.

'Ready To Fight'

At least two of the schools are located in church buildings slated to close--St. Casimir and St. Bridgid School, both for grades K-8. Ms. Marshall said archdiocesan officials have pledged that those two schools would remain open.

That assurance did not appease Sister Leonard. "If the church closes, it's really going to be a problem," she said. "Right now, the parents are upset and ready to fight."

The 160-student, predominantly black school relies on day-to-day support from the predominantly Po8lish-American parishioners. Church members volunteer in the school's library, serve lunches to students, and provide help for school fundraising activities, Sister Leonard said.

"We have a beautiful program here, we have everyone working as one,'' she said.

Sister Leonard said the school has "fought to stay open" during her entire 20-year tenure as principal. "Now, we really have our doubts."

Several school principals were reluctant to discuss the move, refusing to give their names or talk to a reporter.

Costly Demographic Changes

Archdiocesan leaders cited the high cost of maintaining old church buildings, dwindling membership at inner-city churches, and a shrinking pool of available priests as reasons for the consolidation. About 10,000 parishioners attend the churches slated for closing.

The archdiocese has spent more than $19 million over the last seven years in subsidies to urban parishes and schools, officials said.

The number of Catholics in the Detroit metropolitan area has grown from 900,000 after World War II to 1.5 million today, but most of the growth has occurred in the suburbs. There were 48,800 Catholic households in Detroit last year, the archdiocese said.

In the past 20 years, two new churches have opened in the city, while 28 have opened in the suburbs.

"There's really no historical precedent for this situation, because it is very unusual for parishes to close," said Barbara A. Keebler, a spokesman for the National Catholic Educational Association, a Catholic-school organization based in Washington.

She said schools whose parishes were closed would have to seek "creative solutions" for staying in business, such as getting support from several parishes.

The closings, scheduled to be completed next June, are subject to review by the archdiocese before it makes final decisions in January. Parishes have until Oct. 13 to file an appeal with the archdiocese.

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