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PART ONE OF TWO-PART SERIES: Fifty years later, some things remain the same for Catholic schools

Fr. Melevage and Sr. Clare

Holy Cross Sister Anna Clare O'Connor teaches art to Michigan City first-graders in this undated photo. As the late Monsignor F.J. Melevage reported, the female and male religious who once dominated Catholic classrooms were being replaced by lay teachers. (file photo)

 

By Steve Euvino

Northwest Indiana Catholic

 

      (Note: This two-part series is based on the written history of the late Monsignor F.J. Melevage’s 12 years as diocesan school superintendent.)

 

      MERRILLVILLE – Imagine you’re the superintendent of schools and you walk into a classroom in an East Chicago school to find a teaching sister who is working alone with 82 students five days a week.

      Things like that don’t happen anymore in the Diocese of Gary schools. No classroom has that many students; very few women religious teach in our schools; and East Chicago today has only one Catholic school.

      However, some issues never change in Catholic education.

      The late Monsignor F.J. Melevage served as diocesan school superintendent from 1962 to 1974. His recorded history reveals a Catholic culture and an educational system from another era. Yet, 50 years later, parishes and schools face the same challenges: rising tuition, dwindling enrollment, and parental support.

      When Bishop Andrew G. Grutka became bishop in the late 1950s, he inherited 60 schools. By the time Msgr. Melevage stepped down as school superintendent, that number had dropped to 48. Today the diocese has 20 schools.

      Over time, Msgr. Melevage wrote in the mid-1970s, the landscape of Catholic education changed gradually. The former waiting lists for enrolling in Catholic schools disappeared. As school tuition costs rose, families left. Meanwhile, public schools were pumping more money into their programs.

      The male and female religious whose presence once dominated Catholic classrooms was also disappearing, the monsignor wrote, as the religious-lay teacher ratio climbed to 50/50.

      “Hiring one lay teacher at $8,000 a year certainly produced a noticeable increase [in school budgets],” Msgr. Melevage wrote. “Hiring four or eight brought near disaster.”

      Also changing was the parish governing structure of schools. Parents wanted their Catholic schools to be accredited, so their children could advance to high school and college. With accreditation came teacher certification. Parishes developed individual school boards and the diocese established a Diocesan School Commission. In addition, Msgr. Melevage’s staff produced a policy handbook.

      “In the beginning, our [school] system was a confederacy of schools - a loosely-knit group of schools within the diocese,” the monsignor wrote. “We couldn’t have 48 different schools developing 48 different ideas for hiring teachers. Instead, successful procedures were adopted by the system and shared with all members through this policy handbook.”

      Another challenge was communicating the different role Catholic school play over their public counterpart.

      “Religious education continues to be the primary purpose of Catholic schools,” Msgr. Melevage wrote. “But, at times, it seems as if we are doing the job all by ourselves. Although, in theory, most parents consider that area of primary importance, in practice they place more emphasis on other areas. Spiritual good just isn’t taken into consideration.”

      A major difference in Catholic education, the monsignor said, is Catholic schools’ goals of religious, educational, and community, with the emphasis on religious. Catholic schools also build a Christian community, the superintendent said.

      In 1972, 18,146 children attended Diocese of Gary schools; today’s enrollment is 6,460. However, numbers are just one difference between then and now.

      Traditionally, diocesan schools were “sublet” to religious orders who were responsible for teacher supervision and textbook adoption. The parish was responsible for supplying money to run the school. The pastor provided the school building, housing for the sisters, and whatever building upkeep was needed.

      Although this system worked for a while, problems were creeping in. Teacher salaries were low and unequal. Salary schedules, differing by school, were negotiated by pastors “whose generosity and availability of funds differed,” Msgr. Melevage wrote.

      In time, a diocesan school system took shape. Salary schedules were adopted. Curriculum changes were made.

      As changes in staff and programs were coming, more challenges appeared, not the least of which were dwindling student numbers since the peak enrollment year of 1967. While diocesan schools of the early 1970s were educating 18,000 students, religious education programs for elementary and high school grades had more than 27,000 students. (Msgr. Melevage estimated another 25,000 youth were receiving no religious instruction.)

      “We needed new, imaginative programs to bring Christian education to a larger number of children,” the monsignor wrote, adding that blaming fewer priests and sisters was not the answer. “We needed to face the fact that someone had to help them out.”

      Acknowledging societal changes, Msgr. Melevage said young people find themselves at odds with modern values while searching for meaning in their lives. Perhaps, he wrote, youth were in conflict, not with the Church’s end result but rather its means of reaching those ends.

      “Yet we need their boundless energy, their optimism,” Msgr. Melevage wrote. “We couldn’t keep on turning them off, ignoring them. That problem would not go away.”

      NEXT WEEK: Attempts to improve Catholic education.

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