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A house divided: demographic change and the decline of Youngstown's parochial elementary schools.

The precipitous decline of America's Catholic parochial schools is bound to alter the landscape of urban education in ways that are not yet fully understood. Research conducted by the National Catholic Educational Association indicates that, "between 2000 and 2010, the number of students enrolled in Catholic schools nationwide declined by 533,697, or 20 percent" (Butler 2010). The goal of this article is to shed light on the complex interplay of factors that resulted in the disintegration of an urban parochial school system in Youngstown, Ohio, a former industrial center that lost all but one of its eighteen Catholic parochial elementary schools between 1960 and 2006 (Gwin 2006). This paper will argue that a significant factor in the decline of Youngstown's urban parish schools was demographic change, which contributed to a steep reduction in the number of Catholic families residing within the city limits. It will also argue that local Catholic leaders and educators failed to develop a consistent response to urban demographic change. The evidence suggests that the short-term survival of these schools depended largely on the efforts of liberal Catholic educators, who struggled to expand the mission of these schools by reaching out to non-Catholic, non-White families who lived within traditional urban parish boundaries.

This article will show that, while urban parish schools altered their mission to reach out to non-Catholic and non-White students, support for this transformation was neither universal nor consistent. While local diocesan leaders made public statements affirming their support for urban Catholic institutions, these statements were not always accompanied by direct financial assistance (Aikenhead 1976). In addition, the local Catholic community was divided on the issue of whether to maintain urban parish schools that no longer served a majority of Catholic children. Urban parish schools were further imperiled by the rise of charter schools, which drew students from their rolls and therefore contributed to their closing (Cole 1999). The researchers have drawn upon a broad range of archival sources to produce a detailed historical narrative. This approach enabled the researchers to track the impact of demographic change on the city's urban parish schools over a period of several decades. Apart from archival sources--including diocesan and parish records, newspaper articles, and internal memos--the researchers drew upon transcripts of life-history interviews with three individuals connected to Youngstown's parish schools. Interviewees included a former parish school administrator, an alumnus (and patron) of parochial schools, and a public school teacher whose children attended an urban parochial elementary school in the 1980s. Although data from the interview transcripts was used sparingly, it was triangulated whenever possible.


While Youngstown did not become the seat of a Catholic diocese until June 4, 1943, it was already the site of a vibrant system of parish elementary schools by the early 20th century. The foundations of a Catholic community in the Youngstown area were laid mainly by Irish Catholic immigrants, who arrived in the Mahoning Valley in large numbers in the mid-nineteenth century. The premier Catholic parish in Youngstown was St. Columba Church, which was organized on the city's north side in the 1850s, under the patronage of a medieval Irish monk celebrated for his missionary work in Scotland. (1) A few years later, in 1869, St. Ann Church was organized in the north side's Brier Hill district, then an unincorporated village; and within a year, German Catholic immigrants established the national parish of St. Joseph, which was located several blocks to the northeast of St. Columba. In the 1880s, two more Irish-dominated territorial Catholic churches (Immaculate Conception and Sacred Heart) appeared on the city's east side, and in the late 1890s, St. Anthony Church, an Italian national parish, was organized in Brier Hill, not far from the territorial parish of St. Ann. (2) The growth of churches continued apace in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when four Slovak national parishes appeared in quick succession: SS. Cyril and Methodius, on the city's north side; Holy Name, on the west side; Saint Elizabeth, on the east side; and St. Matthias, on the south side (Varley 1931). This period also witnessed the establishment of a second Italian national parish, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, located on the north side; two Polish national parishes--St. Stanislaus (south side) and St. Casimir (north side)--and the city's first Hungarian national parish, St. Stephen, on the east side (Varley 1931). Churches of other national groups also appeared at this time, including St. Maron's Syro-Maronite Parish, on the east side; and the Croatian national parish of SS. Peter and Paul, on the north side (Varley 1931). Meanwhile, two additional English-speaking territorial parishes--St. Edward and St. Patrick--were established in developing neighborhoods on the city's north and south sides, respectively (Varley 1931).

Apparently, the two decades leading up to the establishment of the Diocese of Youngstown witnessed exceptional growth. Between 1923 and 1943, in the area that became the diocese, "seventeen parishes were started, eleven of them territorial; in the older parishes thirty-three churches, nineteen new schools, eight new church-school combinations were put up and six buildings were refitted for Catholic worship" (Hynes 1953, 310-12). Parishes established within the Youngstown city limits during this time included St. Dominic, on the south side; St. Brendan, on the west side; Our Lady of Hungary, on the west side; and St. Francis of Assisi, on the east side (Hynes 1953). Many of these parishes, though not all, established schools, most of which were supported primarily by parishioner donations.

The Catholic values promoted in these schools were shaped, to some extent, by the medievalist perspective of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century church: a worldview that facilitated a blossoming of neo-Gothic architecture among Catholic communities around the United States. Catholic medievalism, however, was not solely a matter of aesthetics. In a Catholic context, a medievalist critique of the modern world was most apparent in the "social encyclicals" of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Gleason 1987, 22-23). During a period of sweeping change and interminable social conflict, Catholics admired what they regarded as the most salient feature of the Middle Ages--its emphasis on social unity (Gleason 1987, 29). Well into the 1950s, the corporatist underpinnings of American Catholic thought were reflected in a Catholic community that encouraged the maintenance of tight-knit neighborhoods, vibrant parishes, and replicated organizations. Clerical observers of the American scene had long recognized that the "great instrument of Catholic separatism was the parochial school" (Morris 1997, 110).

Parish elementary schools began to appear in Youngstown after 1860. The earliest of these modest institutions was associated with the premier parish of St. Columba, and it was merely a small frame building staffed by two lay teachers. In 1864, a more developed school was set up in the basement of the church, again with lay teachers in charge. Four years later, St. Columba Elementary School was under the management of Ursuline nuns from Cleveland, who established a local community in 1874. In time, the Ursulines were joined by other religious communities, including the Sisters of the Holy Humility of Mary, the Sisters of St. Joseph, the Notre Dame nuns, the Franciscan Sisters of Charity, the Vincentian Sisters of Charity, and the Sisters of St. Dominic. The Ursulines, however, were the only religious community to establish a mother house in the Youngstown area (Varley 1931). While the Ursuline community opened Ursuline Academy, a co-educational institution that offered elementary-level classes starting in 1874, most Catholic schools in Youngstown were connected to parishes.

In 1869, the city's second parish elementary school was established by St. Ann Church. One year later, in 1870, St. Joseph Parish opened a school designed to benefit the children of German-speaking immigrants. (3) This was followed by the establishment, in 1883, of Immaculate Conception Elementary School on the east side. Scores of other parochial schools followed, and by 1937, nineteen parish schools were operating within the city limits, with nearly 7,200 children enrolled. These schools were staffed by 158 nuns, eight lay teachers, and several priests. (4) In 1943, when St. Columba Parish was designated a cathedral (a church that contains the seat of a bishop) and six counties in northeastern Ohio--including Mahoning, Stark, Columbiana, Portage, Trumbull, and Ashtabula counties--were placed under the jurisdiction of the bishop of Youngstown, the city alone boasted eighteen parochial schools as well as a high school and junior high school. Nine years later, in 1954, a second diocesan high school opened within the city limits. In 1961, the Youngstown Vindicator reported that "[o]ne out of every three children in Youngstown will attend a Catholic elementary school or high school in September, as school boards estimate 13,318 in the city." (5)

As the 1960s drew to a close, however, Catholic schools in Youngstown entered a period of gradual decline. This pattern was driven, in part, by urban depopulation, the shift of businesses and industrial operations to the suburbs, and sweeping internal changes within the Catholic Church--changes that led some to question the continued need for a system of private religious schools. The decline of urban parish schools was also hastened by urban demographic change, as working-class White families were gradually replaced by working-class Black families, relatively few of whom were Catholic. Ironically, however, as urban parochial schools began to disappear, their public image began to improve. Starting in the 1970s and 1980s, a period when many urban parochial schools lost their traditional constituents, their administrators began to focus increasingly on non-White, non-Catholic student populations, sometimes with impressive results. "Catholic schools most closely resemble the ideal of the common school model: that is, they educate children from different backgrounds and achieve promising academic outcomes," Vernon C. Polite contended in the early 1990s (Polite 1992, 213).


The advent of depopulation and demographic change in center-city neighborhoods, which separated a growing number of Catholics from their traditional urban milieu, dovetailed with sweeping reforms within the church itself. In a startling break with the past, the Second Vatican Council, which had been summoned by Pope John XXIII in December 1961, welcomed the contributions of liberal Catholic thinkers who had been forced into "ecclesiastical exile" for their unorthodox views (McGreevy 2003, 237). These scholars and theologians "infused" the documents of Vatican II "with biblical and patristic emphases, sensitivity to diverse liturgical forms, and a focus on laypeople" (McGreevy 2003). Their efforts also imbued Catholicism with "a new sense of the church moving through history ... and directly addressing the problems of the current age" (McGreevy 2003). As John W. O'Malley observed, one of Vatican II's most distinctive characteristics "was the broad scope of issues it addressed" (O'Malley 2003, 5). Under the council's influence, the church softened its focus on individual eternal salvation and stressed the need to witness "to God's love and compassion by striving to bring justice and healing to the world right here" (Steinfels 2003, 74). American clergy and religious women, inspired by the council's message of social justice, became participants in the civil rights movement, and religiously motivated antiwar activists "put a distinctly Catholic stamp on the seizure and burning of draft records and other dramatic nonviolent protests" (Steinfels 2003, 75). Unsurprisingly, the church's decision to address divisive social and political issues generated internal conflict that "spread through the entire community, dividing families and parishes, bishops and priests" (Dolan 2002, 195).

Despite its wealth of scholarly output, Vatican II produced no groundbreaking documents that dealt specifically with education (Buetow 1970, 302). Harold A. Buetow noted that the council's "relatively weak and traditional" Declaration on Christian Education essentially reaffirmed "the special status of the Catholic school" and emphasized parents' "duty to entrust their children to Catholic schools" (Buetow 1970, 302-4). That said, the relative conservatism of the declaration was overshadowed by the general impact of the council. As Timothy Walch wrote, the drastic reforms "in doctrine and liturgy mandated by Vatican II seemed to transform Catholicism into a new religion" (Walch 2003, 175). Buetow observed that the council's central document, Guadium et Spes ("The Church in the Modern World"), "evidenced a positive concern for the whole world" that encouraged Catholic educators to broaden their mission (Buetow 1970, 302-3). It was, therefore, the council's enveloping theme, rather than its specific educational recommendations, that inspired Catholic educators to reconsider the mission of religious schools. Buetow noted that, among the "tangible results of Vatican II as applied to the United States Catholic education" was the 1968 revision of the National Catholic Education Association (NCEA) constitution (Buetow 1970, 305). The altered constitution, as he pointed out, placed the organization "at the service of society through Catholic education, rather than only at the service of Catholic schools" (Buetow 1970). This subtle shift in focus was important, because it enabled the NCEA to expand its goals "to promote Christian ideals, encourage educational cooperation, and contribute to the national educational effort" (Buetow 1970).

Notably, the influence of Vatican II contributed to the rise of nontraditional urban parish schools that served the needs of the underprivileged, regardless of their religious background. In 1972, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a directive called, To Teach as Jesus Did, which "fleshed out the council's themes of active, publicly engaged schools" (Bryk et al. 1993, 51). The directive outlined "a threefold educational ministry: to teach the message of hope contained in the gospel; to build community 'not simply as a concept to be taught, but as a reality to be lived'; and 'service to all mankind which flows from a sense of Christian community'" (Bryk et al. 1993). In the wake of the directive, U.S. Catholic leaders took steps to prevent their urban schools from becoming "havens" of racial segregation in "changing" neighborhoods. Amid sweeping demographic change, many U.S. dioceses "moved firmly and aggressively, in many cases against its own members, in resisting a tide of racially motivated enrollments" (Bryk et al. 1993, 52). Meanwhile, parish schools in changing neighborhoods resisted pressure to relocate, despite the migration of traditional clients to the suburbs (Bryk et al. 1993). Anthony S. Bryk and his coauthors observed that, if Catholic educators had obeyed "economic logic," they would have closed "all fast-emptying inner-city institutions" and shifted their resources to suburban schools, "but often this course was not followed" (Bryk et al. 1993).


Official reluctance to close down beleaguered center-city Catholic institutions became increasingly evident within the Diocese of Youngstown in the years following Vatican II. In 1973, diocesan leaders affirmed their commitment to urban parochial elementary schools, especially those that served large numbers of minority students. (6) On the recommendation of Bishop James W. Malone, the diocesan school board passed a resolution that the diocese had "a commitment to provide Catholic education in those schools of the diocese that serve poverty areas and promote this education as a missionary service of the church." (7) The diocese also established a committee to recommend policies for schools based in "poverty areas." (8) These moves reflected, in part, the drastically altered circumstances of two of the city's parish schools. In the late 1960s, Immaculate Conception Elementary School, based on the racially diverse east side, was among the first of Youngstown's parish schools to accept large numbers of non-White, non-Catholic students (Aikenhead 1976). By 1976, about 44 percent of Immaculate Conception's 327 students were non-Catholics, and many were members of minority groups (Aikenhead 1977). Likewise, St. Patrick Elementary School, on the city's south side, served an increasingly diverse student population; in April 1977, the Vindicator would report that 52 percent of students enrolled there were non-Catholic, while almost 60 percent were African American (Aikenhead 1977).

There were limits to the diocese's willingness to support such nontraditional parish schools, however. In November of 1976, following a heated debate, the diocesan school board rejected a proposed diocesan-wide tax to assist struggling parish schools like Immaculate Conception (Aikenhead 1976). Some board members voted against the proposed tax because the beneficiaries would have been schools that served mainly non-Catholic students. This position was articulated by Raymond Pelanda, chair of the diocesan finance committee. "If there were no public schools in Youngstown, I would think differently," Pelanda said. "The poor and minorities can get an education in the public schools. We are backed up to the wall" (Aikenhead 1976). Several months later, in January of 1977, the board succumbed to pressure from local clerical leaders to secure alternative funding that would help to keep these schools operational. (9) Among others, the board drew resources from the home mission fund of the Youngstown Society for the Propagation of the Faith, which was designed to support evangelical ventures. (10)

The issues that divided the diocesan school board were reflective of deepening discord among U.S. Catholics over the purposes of parochial education--a debate that was exacerbated by growing fiscal concerns. Efforts on the part of urban Catholic educators to reach out to nontraditional students appeared consistent with Vatican II's emphasis on serving the needs of the larger community. Unsurprisingly, this model of Catholic education drew fire from traditionalists. As Buetow observed, "Those Catholics committed to the sacral aim of 'saving souls' have grave problems with a Catholic schooling which they see as producing an intellectual atmosphere in which the traditional faith does not seem to flourish sufficiently" (Buetow 1989, 212). The board, in its decision to reject a proposed tax to provide aid to nontraditional urban parish schools, may have tacitly supported a more traditional model of parochial education, one that focused primarily on the interests of the Catholic community.

In the absence of a diocesan-wide tax increase, urban parish schools like Immaculate Conception and St. Patrick faced an uncertain future. Immaculate Conception's financial challenges were particularly daunting. The Vindicator reported, in early 1977, that only a $20,000 gift from the estate of late Youngstown-area industrialist Charles B. Cushwa enabled the school to remain open during the 1976-1977 academic year. (11) Starting in the late 1970s, Immaculate Conception's proponents scrambled to organize annual public appeals and fundraising events, while soliciting the aid of individual philanthropists. Still, the institution teetered on the edge of economic collapse. By the end of 1977, the parish school once again faced the threat of closing, this time in the form of a diocesan consolidation plan. Immaculate Conception's pastor--the author of the proposed diocesan tax increase--took the lead in organizing yet another appeal, and encouraged pupils at the school to engage in a letter-writing campaign that targeted the diocesan school board as well as the city's daily newspaper. As a member of a committee set up by the diocese to explore alternatives to consolidation, Father John Summers advocated that the parish be treated "as a mission, as a stabilizing force in an older part of town basically made up of middle-and lower-income families" (Amatos 1977). Father Summers noted that the school had raised $7,000 through "bake sales, raffles, carnivals and other special events," but added that it would need a total of $40,000 to maintain the school's operations (Amatos 1977).

To secure the remainder of the needed funds, Father Summers visited other parishes around the diocese to "collect money and other forms of aid they can supply," an approach that won the approval of Bishop Malone. In line with his "mission concept," the pastor stressed that the school served a large number of students of other religious denominations (Amatos 1977). An overview of the school's religious diversity was followed by a reference to the fact that "non-Catholic students get the same religious training the Catholic students receive" (Amatos 1977). The parish's well-orchestrated appeal to the community's collective conscience paid off. When the Vindicator reported in early 1978 that Father Summers' "mission concept" was working well, this proved to be an understatement (Amatos 1978). By November of 1978, the school's fundraising campaign had exceeded its goal of $40,000 by a comfortable margin (Amatos 1978).

Immaculate Conception's high-profile success in the area of fundraising, however, masked an array of other challenges that faced the school. Like other parish schools operating in neighborhoods where few families could afford even minimal tuition rates, Immaculate Conception struggled to maintain adequate enrollment. To make matters worse, the Youngstown area was starting to feel the impact of the collapse of its steel-manufacturing sector, a crisis that began with the 1977 closing of Youngstown Sheet & Tube's massive plants in nearby Campbell, Ohio, and was exacerbated by the shutting down of U.S. Steel and Republic Steel's facilities over the next three years. The loss of more than 10,000jobs between 1977 and 1980 significantly accelerated the depopulation of center-city neighborhoods, while pushing up levels of poverty throughout the city (Buss and Redburn 1983, 1). Flagging enrollment figures were consistent with census records that showed a sharp decline in the Youngstown area's population. In 1980, Mahoning County experienced an overall 7.1 percent drop in population, compared to a decade earlier. While 304,545 lived in the county in 1970, only 282,813 remained in 1980. Still more dramatic was the 20.4 percent drop in Youngstown's population, which plummeted from 140,909 people in 1970 to 112,146 in 1980. (12) This trend would continue unabated over the next few decades.


The impact of deindustrialization on the city's parochial schools was profound. By the fall of 1979, the diocesan school board's already grave concerns about sliding enrollment had deepened. The board reported a decline of 511 students in the city's Catholic elementary and secondary schools, "a 2.2 percent drop from the official 1978-79 enrollment of 22,869." (13) The most severe losses occurred among schools based in urban neighborhoods with shrinking Catholic populations. Along with the parish schools of St. Patrick and St. Dominic on the south side, and St. Edward on the north side, Immaculate Conception experienced among the worst drops in enrollment among Youngstown's parish schools, recording fifty-three fewer students than during the 1977-78 academic year. As Immaculate Conception's enrollment figures continued to fall in the early 1980s, the school once again faced the prospect of being closed, although this time through a process of consolidation. When Immaculate Conception opened for the 1981-82 academic year, it welcomed a meager 235 students into its classrooms. Enrollment figures were even lower at Sacred Heart Elementary School, which was located several blocks east of Immaculate Conception. At Sacred Heart, enrollment had slipped to 155 students. (14)

While school board members recognized a need for immediate action, they elected to move with caution. Board members undoubtedly grasped that the two schools were beloved institutions in their respective neighborhoods; both were connected to parishes with long and rich histories. In 1982, Diocesan Superintendent John Augenstein issued a press release stating that both schools were "plagued with declining enrollment and inflationary costs." (15) In April 1982, during a meeting on the consolidation that was held at a local Catholic high school, diocesan officials announced that the school board had determined, in a vote of nine to three, that Immaculate Conception's school building would be the site of the consolidated school. (16) Superintendent Augenstein framed the move as unavoidable and argued that immediate steps needed to be taken "if Catholic education were to continue on the East Side." (17) Members of Sacred Heart's parish council were apparently unconvinced, and several complained of negligible input on a decision that would profoundly affect their parish (Fitzpatrick 1982). More was at stake, however, in the consolidation of the schools than issues such as "turf" and identity.

Many east-side residents, including the district's shrinking pool of Whites, viewed parochial schools as essential alternatives to troubled urban public schools. Given that public schools in Youngstown's center city served large numbers of African American students, interpreting the motives of White parents poses a challenge. It is sometimes difficult to determine where racial prejudice ends and legitimate dissatisfaction with the quality of urban public education begins. It might be simplistic to suggest that schools like Sacred Heart and Immaculate Conception functioned exclusively as "havens" for White parents seeking to insulate their children from integrated public schools. Both of these institutions, after all, served racially diverse student populations. In 1977, six years before Sacred Heart Elementary School closed in the consolidation, the Vindicator reported that 22 percent of the school's 204 students were Black, while 40 percent of Immaculate Conception's students were African American (Aikenhead 1977). Nevertheless, there appears to be a relationship between the closing of urban private schools and the accelerated flight of White residents from Youngstown's center city. Paula McKinney, an alumnus of parochial schools whose children were then enrolled in the east side school, recalled making this point in the early 1970s, during a public forum on the future of Sacred Heart Parish's school. "At an open meeting, I said, 'Father, this will be the end,'" Mrs. McKinney said in an interview. "I said, 'Close that school and ... the "for sale" signs will go up, and people will move out. Why shouldn't they, if there is no school for their children?" (18)

Mrs. McKinney's comments reflected the perspective of many Catholic observers in the 1970s, who stressed the role of parochial schools in "anchoring a portion of the white population" in urban areas. John T. McGreevy outlined this position in his discussion of Catholic responses to critics who contended that urban parish schools were an obstacle to public school integration. "Catholic schools clearly pulled substantial numbers of white students out of the public school system," McGreevy wrote. "Given that white families tended to abandon a neighborhood when the number of minority students in the public schools increased dramatically, however, the schools also enabled white Catholic families (at least in the short run) to remain in the city longer than their non-Catholic counterparts" (McGreevy 1998, 240-41). McGreevy concluded by pointing to studies indicating that "Catholic schools fostered neighborhood integration even as they limited potential integration within the public schools" (McGreevy 1998). A vicious cycle became apparent: earlier waves of White migration to the suburbs severely weakened urban parish schools, and the closing of these institutions guaranteed the departure of most of those Whites who remained behind.


Amid rampant deindusttrialization, Youngstown's shrinking population found its parallel--predictably enough--in the flagging rolls of the city's parish schools. Diocesan records show that, between 1979 and 1980, total enrollment for Youngstown's parochial elementary schools fell from 4,034 to 3,922--a loss of 112 students. (19) Records also show that, by 1984, parochial school enrollment had slipped to 3,102, reflecting a staggering loss of 820 students since 1980. Then, in 1985, the city's parochial school rolls showed 2,838 students, a reduction of 264 students from the previous year. (20) The initial effects of urban depopulation were most pronounced in schools that operated in aging center-city neighborhoods. Between 1979 and 1980, for instance, parish schools that showed the most severe enrollment losses included St. Dominic (-31), on the south side; St. Edward (-32), on the north side; and Sacred Heart (-40), on the east side. A handful of center-city parish schools saw a modest boost in enrollment--notably St. Patrick Elementary School, which gained twenty-four students--while a few others maintained status-quo enrollment. (21) On the whole, however, schools located in neighborhoods that experienced depopulation before the collapse of Youngstown's steel sector were among those seriously affected by the accelerated depopulation characteristic of the 1980s.

Unsurprisingly, ethnic parish schools were among the most vulnerable of Youngstown's urban institutions. Dependent on the sponsorship of White ethnic groups who had largely retreated to suburban areas, these schools were struggling even before the advent of the 1980s. Therefore, few local observers could have been surprised in 1983, when the diocese announced that SS. Cyril and Methodius Elementary School, a fixture on the north side since 1907, would close at the end of the school year. The parish and school, which were established primarily for Slovak Americans, also served hundreds of Lithuanian, Polish, Hungarian, and Greek Uniate Catholics. At its peak, SS. Cyril and Methodius enrolled 250 students, the vast majority of whom belonged to the parish. Yet, by the end of the 1977-1978 academic year, the school enrolled only ninety-five students (Aikenhead 1977). While enrollment fell only modestly over the next few years, the composition of the student body changed significantly. The Vindicator reported that, at the time of SS. Cyril and Methodius's closing, only forty-eight of the school's ninety students were "from the parish," a circumstance that could be interpreted to suggest that many of the remaining students were non-Catholic and non-White (Aikenhead 1977). The decision to close the school came on the heels of a diocesan projection that only seventy-eight students would be enrolled for the upcoming academic year (Owen 1983).

As the effects of deindustrialization and unemployment bore down on the community, urban parochial schools continued to grapple with plummeting enrollment. In 1986, the diocesan school board announced the closing of St. Stanislaus Elementary School, a south-side institution affiliated with a Polish national parish. (22) While the school had served 333 students in 1965, it enrolled just seventy-one in 1985. Tellingly, just twenty-eight of these students were members of the parish--further evidence of demographic changes that resulted in a smaller percentage of Catholics in urban neighborhoods. (23) In time, even those ethnic parish schools that operated in majority-White, working- to middle-class neighborhoods were showing the effects of depopulation. This became evident in 1990, when Holy Name Elementary School, which was established on the west side in 1920, announced it would close its doors permanently. While it was located in a relatively stable neighborhood, the school's fate had hung in the balance for nearly a decade. Holy Name faced the prospect of closing down in 1982 and, once again, in 1987, when the diocese demanded that the school enroll at least seventy students in order to remain open. On the second of these occasions, Dr. Nicholas Wolsonovich, the diocesan school superintendent, granted Holy Name a reprieve when a recruitment drive boosted enrollment to almost sixty students. (24) It was clear to most people involved, however, that the parish school's days were numbered. Between 1975 and 1989, Holy Name's enrollment plummeted from 212 to forty-three, while the school's cost-per-pupil average rose from $500 to $2,500. (25) By 1990, Holy Name's enrollment had been reduced to a paltry forty-three students, and the school was forced to cease operation. (26)

In the face of popular predictions that the community had "hit rock bottom" and was certain to rebound, Youngstown's population continued its inexorable slide, falling to 95,732 residents in 1990. (27) Then, in 2000, the U.S. Census Bureau recorded the city's population at 82,026 (Smith, Skolnick, and Milliken 2001). In sync with the city's declining population, parochial school enrollment continued to slip; and the 1990s shaped up as a decade of serial school closings. In 1996, Dr. Wolsonovich announced that another local icon, St. Anthony Elementary School, would cease operation. The relatively modern school building had been the pride of a working-class, Italian American neighborhood on the city's lower north side. St. Anthony Elementary School opened in 1959 with 201 students and saw its enrollment expand dramatically over the next several years. The school's enrollment peaked at 436 students in 1963. (28) Yet, by the fall of 1996, St. Anthony's rolls had slipped to 122, which made its closing all but inevitable (Jacquet 1996). St. Anthony's fate was shared by one of the city's most widely admired urban parish schools. Earlier that year, in the spring of 1996, St. Patrick Elementary School abandoned its long struggle to remain in operation. The parish school had been a landmark on the city's south side since 1914, when it opened with 500 students, and enrollment grew dramatically over the next several decades. By the spring of 1996, however, the parish school served just 107 students, a figure that represented a decline of 126 pupils from the previous academic year. (29) Interestingly, the institution's story did not end with its closing as a parish school. In May 1996, Thomas J. Tobin, then bishop of the Diocese of Youngstown, announced that the school would be "transformed" into a joint Lutheran-Catholic ecumenical school known as New Hope Academy (Milliken 1996).


The decade of the 1990s brought with it new challenges, including the rise of competitive charter schools that drew from a shrinking pool of urban pupils. Not only did these nondenominational, state-funded schools offer amenities that were traditionally associated with parish schools; they also did not charge tuition. Eagle Heights Academy, Youngstown's premier charter school, opened on the city's south side in 1998 (Cole 1998). The academy was one of fifteen charter schools that opened across the state in 1998 alone. Although nonsectarian schools like Eagle Heights Academy received state funding, they operated independently of any school district. In addition, despite their nondenominational status, some of these schools were supported and managed by local religious leaders, who deplored the record of urban public schools. Institutions like Eagle Heights Academy benefited from policies of the state government that facilitated the expansion of charter schools. In the spring of 1999, the Ohio legislature allowed for the creation of thirty-seven new charter schools statewide, and in April, two more prepared to open in Youngstown (Trevas 1999). Hope Academy (Youngstown Campus), the largest of the two schools, was authorized to enroll up to 390 students in classes ranging from kindergarten to eighth grade (Trevas 1999). The Vindicator reported that the city's four charter schools were expected to enroll a combined 1,200 students "who otherwise would be in the city's public or parochial schools" (Trevas 1999).

The impact of the city's charter schools upon parish schools was almost instantaneous. In 1999, administrators at St. Dominic Elementary School--described in the local media as "a stronghold of the city's South Side for 75 years"--announced that the institution would close at the end of the school year (Cole 1999). St. Dominic's enrollment, which peaked in 1964 at 1,297 students, fell to 150 in 1999 (Cole 1999). Father Joseph Allen, pastor of St. Dominic Church, attributed the closing to factors such as "the school's increasing dependence on parish subsidies, uncollected tuition, and chronic enrollment declines" (Cole 1999). Tellingly, the pastor added that the most recent drop in St. Dominic's enrollment had coincided with the opening of Eagle Heights Academy on the city's south side (Cole 1999). In what emerged as a "perfect storm" scenario, Youngstown's urban parochial schools--long deprived of adequate enrollment, tuition dollars, and parishioner donations--were now in competition with free, publicly funded schools that offered many of the benefits of private schools.

With the rise of competitive charter schools, the trend toward declining enrollment among urban parish schools escalated in the early twenty-first century. In June 2003, a crowd gathered for the final baccalaureate Mass of St. Edward Elementary School (Milliken 2003). While the parish school had been one of the most successful institutions of its kind in Youngstown, it had been forced to confront the realities connected to an aging parish population, as more young families moved elsewhere. The end came swiftly. In February of 2003, Father Frank Lehnerd, pastor of St. Edward Church, announced that the parish's elementary school would not re-open for the upcoming academic year. In a prepared statement, Father Lehnerd attributed the school's terminal difficulties to an exodus of Catholics from the city. (30) Absent from the pastor's comments was any reference to the parish school's increased reliance on the patronage of the mainly non-White, non-Catholic families residing in surrounding neighborhoods. Many of these families had apparently chosen alternatives to Catholic education. Like Immaculate Conception Elementary School, St. Edward served students who were mainly from low-income, non-Catholic, and minority backgrounds (Cole 2002).

Local residents who were surprised to learn about the closing of St. Edward Elementary School, an institution sponsored by a traditionally affluent parish, were probably shocked two years later, when the media reported the imminent closure of St. Brendan Preschool and Elementary School. Since 1925, the parish school had been a landmark on the city's working- and middle-class west side; and neighborhoods surrounding St. Brendan Church were generally well maintained, even as homes elsewhere in the city fell into disrepair. Moreover, with 119 students enrolled in its kindergarten through eighth-grade classes, St. Brendan appeared healthier than some of its center-city counterparts. (31) However, when compared to St. Christine Elementary School, another west side institution, St. Brendan's enrollment seemed remarkably small. In 2005, St. Christine's Elementary School enrolled 444 students, more than three times the number of students recorded at St. Brendan. (32) In February of 2005, St. Brendan's pastor, Father James Daprile confirmed rumors that the school would close in June of that year. (33)

The local media placed the school's closing in the context of the city's declining population, and Bishop Tobin underscored this theme, noting that Youngstown had lost 41 percent of its population since 1970, "bringing with it a 56 percent decrease in Catholic population." (34) Bishop Tobin indicated that the final decision to close the school, although "difficult," was practically unavoidable. Nevertheless, news of the school's impending closure inspired angry protests from the small number of families who depended on the school. Meanwhile, other local Catholics took for granted that parish schools would always be part of the urban landscape. This stubborn illusion was dispelled on June 6, 2006, when Youngstown's pattern of parochial schools came to an official end. On that date, administrators of two of the city's three remaining parish schools--Immaculate Conception, on the east side, and St. Matthias, on the south side--announced that these institutions would cease operation: a development that left only one parish school operating within the city limits. Few observers failed to notice that St. Christine Elementary School, located in a neighborhood straddling Austintown and Boardman townships, was "urban" only in the most technical sense (Gwin 2006).

Unsurprisingly, Catholic educators in Youngstown cited the growth of charter schools as an important contributing factor to the disappearance of urban parish schools. These parish schools were already struggling with the dwindling enrollment that had been brought on by urban depopulation. Sister Charlotte Italiano, who had served as principal of both St. Patrick and Immaculate Conception elementary schools, claimed that the impact of the charter schools was decisive. She observed that charter schools often provided amenities that were not offered at Catholic elementary schools. Parochial school class sizes were, on average, larger than those at charter schools, making the student-teacher ratio considerably higher. Meanwhile, charter schools "could afford to have two certified teachers in every classroom." (35) Urban parish schools, on the other hand, "struggled to keep one full-time teacher in the classroom." (36) Parish schools were also far less equipped to serve "special needs" children, given that government funds dispensed for this purpose could not "compare with what the public schools get." (37) For parishes that were already struggling to maintain elementary schools, such competition turned out to be the last straw.


The disappearance of Youngstown's center-city parish schools cannot be attributed entirely to demographic changes that occurred in urban neighborhoods following World War II. Nor can it be described as the sole consequence of White Catholics' waning support for parish schools that served nontraditional student populations. This support proved surprisingly resilient, when one considers the cost of maintaining urban schools that no longer benefited from the donations of large numbers of parishioners. Still, it seems clear that demographic change was a key contributing factor in the decline of urban parochial schools in Youngstown. Among others, this trend ensured that parish schools would lose traditional patrons at a time when they faced myriad economic challenges, including rising costs and declining enrollment. A number of these schools substantially altered their mission as they took on more non-White and non-Catholic students, a move that probably alienated prospective Catholic donors who were inclined to question this nontraditional use of community resources. Despite disagreement over the mission of these institutions, however, fundraising for nontraditional urban parish schools proved relatively successful until the early 1990s.

Amid numerous challenges, Youngstown's parish schools provided quality education to urban youth over a period of several decades. Many of these schools fostered a strong sense of community, even in cases where few of the students belonged to the parish. This quality was highlighted by Ida Carter, an African American public school teacher, when she explained her reasons for sending her children to St. Patrick Elementary School. "The difference I saw was, St. Pat's was like a family," Mrs. Carter said. "Everybody knew each other, and it seemed like everybody cared about each other." (38) Although the long-term legacy of these parish schools remains uncertain, some former educators speculate that their influence will continue to be felt in the Youngstown area. These nontraditional parish schools not only softened longstanding misunderstandings between White Catholics and Black Protestants; they drew much-needed attention to the problems of the center city. Given the obstacles many of these schools were forced to overcome, their resilience seems remarkable. Their durability owed much to the shared commitment of a small group that included members of religious orders, educators, philanthropists, and diocesan leaders. Apparently, when diocesan leaders placed less emphasis on the maintenance of urban institutions (which apparently happened during the tenure of Bishop Thomas J. Tobin), the city witnessed a rapid series of parochial school closings.

Yet, there is no way to determine whether Youngstown's urban parish schools would have fared better under the leadership of someone resembling the diocese's current bishop, George V. Murry, an African American who stresses the church's obligation to remain a presence in urban neighborhoods. Given the overwhelming economic challenges Youngstown faced in recent decades, it seems unlikely that one leader could have single-handedly preserved what remained of the city's beleaguered parochial school system. The fact that some local Catholics believe visionary leadership could have made a decisive difference is revealing, however. This perception calls attention to the delicate combination of circumstances that enabled these schools to survive as long as they did.


Aikenhead, M. 1976. "Board refuses school funding: Votes against diocese inner city aid," The Youngstown Vindicator, November 17, 1.

--. 1977. "Diocesan schools reveals ethnic makeup: 8.2 % of 10,408 students are from minorities," The Youngstown Vindicator, April 13. Amatos, C. 1978. "A look at the past and future of Catholic schools," The Youngstown Vindicator, January 29.

--. 1977. "Immaculate Conception pupils love their school: Join with pastor, parents in effort to save facility," The Youngstown Vindicator, December 11, A-24.

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--. 1989. "The Catholic school phenomenon." In Perspectives on the American Catholic Church, 1789-1989, edited by Stephen J. Vicchio and Sister Regina Geiger, 197-222. Westminster, MD: Christian Classics.

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Cole, R. 1998. "Charter school gets set to open: Private donors have given $400,000 to renovate the old high school, the board president said," The Vindicator, June 30, A-1.

--. 1999. "Finances close St. Dominic's school, The Vindicator, April 10, B-1.

--. 2002. "Immaculate Conception: Does bell for students also toll for school? The school has opened early; the new principal's attitude is that it won't be closed," The Vindicator, August 14, B-1.

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Gwin, H. 2006. "Final bell tolls for two schools: There were some long faces as children left St. Matthias on Tuesday," The Vindicator, June 7, B-1.

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Milliken, P. H. 2003. "Many bid farewell as St. Edward School closes," The Vindicator, June 6, 1.

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Thomas G. Welsh

Independent Scholar

Deborah M. Campbell

Independent Scholar


(1.) "St. Columba contributes much to Catholicity's growth: St. Columba's parent church of the city," The Youngstown Telegram, May 3, 1919, 5.

(2.) St. Anthony Church, "St. Anthony's church 100 year commemoration program," commemorative program printed in 1998, Reuben-McMillan Public Library, Youngstown, OH.

(3.) "Parochial teachers have hands full," The Youngstown Vindicator, March 27, 1938, J-4.

(4.) "Expect 7,200 enrollment: Twenty Catholic schools prepare to open with bigger rosters," The Youngstown Vindicator, September 4, 1937.

(5.) "Catholic schools to have third of city's students," The Youngstown Vindicator, July 14, 1961, 7.

(6.) "Says diocese owes poor schools aid," The Youngstown Vindicator, February 28, 1973, 1.

(7.) Ibid.

(8.) Ibid.

(9.) "School to remain open 1 more yr.," The Youngstown Vindicator, January 19, 1977, 40.

(10.) Ibid.

(11.) "School to remain open 1 more yr.," The Youngstown Vindicator, January 19, 1977, 40.

(12.) "Mahoning Co.'s census shows 7.1 percent drop," The Youngstown Vindicator, July 8, 1980, 1.

(13.) "Enrollment declines 511 students in Youngstown diocesan schools," The Youngstown Vindicator, September 19, 1979, 17.

(14.) "Diocese may close 1 school," The Youngstown Vindicator, April 15, 1982, 1.

(15.) "Diocese may close 1 school," The Youngstown Vindicator, April 15, 1982, 1.

(16.) "Will use Immaculate Conception School," The Youngstown Vindicator, April 29, 1982, 12.

(17.) Ibid.

(18.) Paula McKinney, interview by Thomas G. Welsh, Jr., June 14, 2007, transcript, Hogan-Cullinan Family Collection, #314, Mahoning Valley Historical Society, Youngstown, OH.

(19.) Statistics on school enrollment from Youngstown Diocese (1979-1997), reproduction, Hogan-Cullinan Family Collection, #314, Mahoning Valley Historical Society, Youngstown, OH.

(20.) Ibid.

(21.) Ibid.

(22.) "St. Stanislaus School to close as pupil enrollment declines," The Youngstown Vindicator, February 25, 1986, 4.

(23.) Ibid.

(24.) "Diocesan school to stay open," The Youngstown Vindicator, June 22, 1987, 4.

(25.) Ibid.

(26.) Catholic diocese plans closing of west side elementary school," The Youngstown Vindicator, March 8, 1990, 1.

(27.) "Valley population" (pictorial graph), The Vindicator, January 22, 1995.

(28.) "Bishop gives his OK to recommendation to close St. Anthony," The Vindicator, March 4, 1996, B-1.

(29.) Ibid.

(30.) "St. Edward to close at school year's end: The declining enrollment is due in part to the movement of Catholics to the suburbs, the diocese said," The Vindicator, February 25, 2003, 1.

(31.) "St. Brendan's Elementary: Declining numbers led to school closing," The Vindicator, March 1, 2005, 1.

(32.) Ibid.

(33.) "St. Brendan's in final year: The diocese says an official announcement will be released Monday," The Vindicator, February 26, 2005, 1.

(34.) "St. Brendan's Elementary: Declining numbers led to school closing," The Vindicator, March 1, 2005, 1.

(35.) Sister Charlotte Italiano, O.S.U., interview by Thomas G. Welsh, Jr., May 31, 2007, transcript, Hogan-Cullinan Family Collection, #314, Mahoning Valley Historical Society, Youngstown, OH.

(36.) Ibid.

(37.) Ibid.

(38.) Ida Carter, interview by Thomas G. Welsh, Jr., May 4, 2007, transcript, Hogan-Cullinan Family Collection, #314, Mahoning Valley Historical Society, Youngstown, OH.

Thomas G. Welsh, Independent Scholar, 438 North Osborne Avenue, Youngstown, OH 44509-1849, Email:

Deborah M. Campbell, Independent Scholar, 215 Dale Drive, # 101, Kent, OH 44240-2881, Email:
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Author:Welsh, Thomas G.; Campbell, Deborah M.
Publication:American Educational History Journal
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2011
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