In more than four decades of coaching girls’ basketball at Lebanon Catholic High School in southeastern Pennsylvania, Patti Hower had led the team to three state championships and 20 district titles. This year, with four starting players returning, there were high hopes again.
But then in April came the news: the Roman Catholic Diocese of Harrisburg announced that the school, whose origins date to 1859, was permanently closing, citing insurmountable financial stress, exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.
“We played our last game in March and had a postgame talk saying, ‘We’re looking forward to this upcoming year,’” said Ms. Hower, 68, who attended the school, like her father and granddaughters. “We never thought, ‘Hey, we’re never going to get on that court together again as a team.’”
As schools around the country debate how to reopen safely, a growing number of Catholic schools — already facing declining enrollments and donations from before the pandemic — are shutting down for good.
About 150 Catholic schools have closed, said Kathy Mears, the director of the National Catholic Educational Association, equal to about 2 percent of the 6,183 schools that were up and running last year. The number of closures is at least 50 percent higher this year than in previous years, Ms. Mears said.
In Boston, the archdiocese has had to close nine schools so far, and about two dozen others are on a “watch list,” said Thomas Carroll, superintendent of schools for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. In early July, the Archdiocese of New York announced that it would be closing 20 Catholic Schools.
As parents and families lost their jobs during the pandemic, many could no longer pay tuition at Catholic schools, even though fees are generally much less than at other private schools. And when churches began shutting down to curb the spread of the virus, that also ended a major source for donations — some of which would normally be allotted for parish schools.
For many schools after years of declining enrollments, the coronavirus became the mortal strike. “If a school was financially vulnerable, the pandemic was the thing that pushed them over the edge,” Ms. Mears said.
Enrollment at Catholic schools in the United States peaked at 5.2 million nationwide in the early 1960s, according to the National Catholic Educational Association. But as the percentage of practicing Catholics has declined across the United States, so has the number of children enrolling in Catholic schools. Enrollment for the 2019-20 school year was down to about 1.7 million.
The closing of the parochial schools has etched a profound sense of loss among teachers and families, who face the abrupt disappearance of spaces that long served as focal points for personal relationships and family ties.
The Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston reported the closure of four schools in April, saying that fallout from Covid-19 was the final blow for facilities long struggling to meet costs.
“The cataclysmic effects of this pandemic have left us with no options — which breaks out hearts,” Cardinal Daniel DiNardo said in a statement.
One of those schools, St. Francis of Assisi, had been severely damaged by Hurricane Harvey in 2017, but community members had worked hard to support rebuilding efforts and welcome students back in the fall of 2018, said Sharita Palmer Mayo, whose two sons attended the school. Less than two years later, the closure has forced families to look elsewhere for schooling once again.
“We had literally just like built a little family there,” Ms. Palmer Mayo said. “I was in love with the school.”
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