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Dispute in Atlanta over black Catholic schools

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

When he was ordained a priest in the Atlanta archdiocese 30 years ago, Fr. John Adamski never imagined he would one day join a picket line outside the residence of his archbishop. That’s what happened in late March, however, when Adamski joined a group of Our Lady of Lourdes parishioners to protest Archbishop John F. Donoghue’s proposal to close the inner-city parish’s elementary school. The school has been serving the needs of Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward African-American neighborhood since 1912 when the school was founded by St. Katherine Drexel and her Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.

“I needed to be with my people in the midst of this very difficult time,” Adamski said. “That’s not the place that I would have chosen to be. It’s very difficult. I was not ordained to wind up in that kind of situation, but I was ordained to pastor church communities, and this is the community where I am now.”

In the midst of dealing with problems plaguing Lourdes and St. Anthony’s, another African-American school targeted by the archbishop -- problems such as declining enrollment, budget shortfalls and low standardized test scores -- Donoghue has criticized the fact that the schools have a minority Catholic enrollment.

“Our primary mission is to operate Catholic schools for Catholic children,” Donoghue said in a news release.

“We’re not into counting Catholic heads,” said St. Anthony’s pastor, Fr. T.J. Meehan. “I think we’re into providing a needed alternative to public school education here in the West End of Atlanta. I think a lot of our children that go through St. Anthony’s School, regardless of what their faith is, are being prepared well in terms of values and moral training and everything else to make a contribution here.”

Adamski said, “The manner in which the archdiocese has approached this whole situation has not been the church at its best. The point is that these communities have been seriously harmed, in my mind, by the process of the last two months.”

Recent developments include the following.

In April, the archdiocese announced plans to pull funding for Lourdes and St. Anthony’s, a parish in Atlanta’s West End community. After years of exploring numerous options to bail out the budget-strapped schools, a committee advising Donoghue recommended that the archdiocese close the two schools and consolidate them with a third African-American school, Sts. Peter and Paul in Decatur, a suburb east of the city. It was a decision opponents claim was rushed and did not include enough input from the affected communities.

The decision to cut funds to the two schools has outraged parents and parishioners. Adamski says the parish and the school have operated for 89 years with a single identity in the community. St. Anthony’s was once situated in a predominantly white community, but has been serving African-Americans for more than 35 years.

The archdiocese, which supplemented the three school’s operating budgets by approximately $1.7 million this year, said it would offer transportation for the approximately 200 students from Lourdes and St. Anthony’s to the campus in Decatur, where about 150 students are currently enrolled. The archdiocese has announced plans to provide funds to upgrade and expand the Decatur regional school, including adding a gymnasium.

One of the protest organizers described the plan to name the consolidated Decatur school after Drexel as “a form of appeasement.” As P.J. Lemuel, the organizer and a Lourdes parishioner, put it, “We’ll give the little pickaninnies a school named after Katherine Drexel and that ought to satisfy them. And that’s what we’ve been treated like. We’ve been treated like a bunch of pickaninnies, that we don’t have intelligence. They’ve not made us partners in our children’s education. And that’s been for a long time now.”

The archbishop has since backed off from his proposal to close the schools, saying that the schools can remain open, “providing they can be fully self-funded.” Most Lourdes and St. Anthony’s parents and parishioners supported the option of closing Lourdes and merging it with St. Anthony’s, which includes more land for eventual expansion. That plan would have kept one of the downtown schools open.

Further, the archdiocese has agreed to change the name of the proposed new school to St. Peter Claver Regional School and the Office of Black Catholics has been asked “to engage in an ongoing process of exploring spiritually, educationally and financially viable concepts for the long term provision of Catholic education to children from the St. Anthony’s and Lourdes parishes.”

Meanwhile, an effort is underway by some Lourdes parishioners to raise more than $1 million to keep the parish school open for the 2001-02 school year. But to date the money raised is nowhere close to what will be needed to keep the school’s doors open, Adamski said.

Both Adamski and Meehan said the problem had developed because the archbishop relied more on the advice of a consulting firm hired by the archdiocese to resolve the quandary, as well as chancery insiders, than on the opinions of those in the affected parishes.

“Had he been in touch with his priests more, particularly those of us who pastor in the African-American community, he could have avoided some landmines,” Meehan said.

Especially frustrating was an order by Donoghue in late March that allowed just four days for Lourdes and St. Anthony’s to offer alternative proposals to the regional school plan. Meehan and Adamski also claim the archdiocese has mismanaged the two schools since the archdiocese took over both of them from the parishes about six years ago. Since the takeover, enrollment declined and “a lot of the quality of education just wasn’t there,” Meehan said. “It was on their watch that much of this occurred. Then they came back and said ‘fix it in four days or come up with something.’ “

In an April 17 open letter, Donoghue acknowledged that problems were caused at Lourdes and St. Anthony’s “by the past archdiocesan decision-making processes. ... it is true that while these schools were under the control of the archdiocese their educational performance was unacceptable and their financial problems became ever more acute. The seriousness of the difficulties was not identified and reported by the archdiocesan officials in place at the time, and for that, I, as archbishop of Atlanta, apologize.”

In the news release noting that less than 47 percent of the students at Lourdes and St. Anthony’s were Catholic, Donoghue was quoted as follows: “Maintaining these schools, even if we could overcome low enrollment, ineffective educational performance and financial problems, would simply result in the archdiocese operating private rather than Catholic schools. We would not do that elsewhere and should not do it in the city either. Our primary mission is to operate Catholic schools for Catholic children.”

Meehan said the archdiocese’s Office of Catholic Schools “has lost its sense of mission to the people that are living downtown in Atlanta. Taking the children from our two parishes ... and sending them out to Decatur looks an awful lot like, and feels like, segregation -- segregating our black Catholic children and putting them in a single institution.”

The decision to merge the three schools has “left a bitter taste in everyone’s mouth here at St. Anthony’s,” Meehan said. “There is a perception that no one at the archdiocese cares enough to listen to the hopes and dreams of our people. Without more sensitivity and respectful statements and efforts from our archdiocesan education office, I’m afraid we’ll further lose credibility and support from our black Catholics throughout the archdiocese.”

Meehan said the archdiocese is losing the trust of African-Americans. Closing the two schools is “even seen as something of a threat to the eventual closing of our churches,” he said.

Mary Avery, administrative assistant at Lourdes School, where her daughter, Nia, is a kindergarten student, said the archdiocese should have a commitment to maintaining the missionary purpose of the two inner-city schools that supersedes economics.

As a way of raising funds at St. Anthony’s, Meehan said plans are to lease St. Anthony’s School to a charter school “for three or four years.” The income would be used to establish a development fund for the eventual reopening of St. Anthony’s as a Catholic school.

While Meehan has little hope that the fund-raising effort will succeed, Avery is confident. “For me hope springs eternal,” she said. “My faith is not in man, it’s in God, and with faith in God you can move mountains and that’s my theme for now. How do you move a mountain?”

National Catholic Reporter, May 11, 2001