PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — There’s been a steady decline in local Catholic Mass attendance over the years, but nowhere is the drop off more evident than in the Catholic elementary schools.
Even the smell of fried fish and macaroni on Fridays are nostalgic to anyone who has ever attended a Catholic grammar school.
“It’s the feeling you get when you walk into this place…it goes back generations,” Principal Don Militzer said.
But are traditional Catholic elementary schools now in danger of becoming a relic of the past?
Kindergarten through 8th grade enrollment in the Diocese has fallen by more than half in recent years, shrinking from 23,700 in the year to 2000 to just 11,500 in 2015.
Parish schools have merged into one another, leaving ones like Madonna Catholic in Monongahela to serve entire regions.
“In the 1950s there were 12 schools here in the Mon Valley. We’re the last one left,” Principal Militzer said.
Population declines in the valley are certainly a factor, but enrollment is off significantly even in thriving areas, as are mass attendance and the other touchstones of cradle to the grave Catholicism — baptisms, first communions, confirmations and weddings — all off by 40 percent or more.
Bishop David Zubik said the church and its schools are fighting a turning away from religion in our society.
“A sense of godlessness in society. Or it’s a sense of letting myself be the center of the universe,” Bishop Zubik said.
Schools like Madonna say they offer the young students not only strong academics, but a foundation of faith and values that will make them caring and giving people. All students engage in community service though coat and food drives and volunteering at soup kitchens.
“So you’re teaching the whole person. I think we are not just spiritually, physically, emotionally, academically. I think that’s what we do here at Madonna,” said teacher Kathy Miller
In coming weeks, the Diocese will begin rolling out a reorganization plan involving the mergers of parishes, churches and schools in it’s six counties. The hope is that these remaining regional schools will be more vibrant and vital.
“You find tuition decreases, enrollment increases and what’s important is that everyone has a voice in it,” Bishop Zubik said.
To make that a success, schools like Madonna are reaching out to their alumni to follow the example of parents like Juliann Romasco, who went to Madonna as a child and has enrolled her kids.
“This school made me who I am and I want the same for my children,” she said.