A year ago this week, local news media reported that Saint Charles Borromeo Catholic School would be forced to close because of financial woes. They were referencing operational deficits, debt, dilapidated structures, a diminishing neighborhood, and an enrollment that decreased over seventy percent in less than a decade. The demographics around this aging region between the little village of Oakview and town of Gladstone, a northern community within the Missouri borders of Kansas City, had become less as the neighborhoods that sprawled from it became more. Consequently, the church, once the flagship parish of the Northland, and the school, which once housed a thousand students, became victim to bigger, better, and more popular destinations.
Established in the 1940’s as the Second World War was ending and soldiers were returning home, Saint Charles was the second parish created in Kansas City’s Northland and opened the first Catholic school here. After a few Masses in a neighborhood restaurant and bar, an army barracks was erected as a worship site on a nine-acre field where the community later built its church and school. Like a foreshadowing of the field of dreams, it was built and the people came. That is, until they didn’t. As happens over and over, people move to greener pastures, schools left behind close, and churches falter; in Kansas City we are mindful of Saint Catherine, Saint Bernadette, Our Lady of Lourdes, Coronation, and Christ the King, among others. Mass exoduses tend to be too great to reverse the negative trajectory. As closures occur, bishops and the church-in-general get accused of not caring for Catholic education. It’s an unfair accusation.
To combat what seemed inevitable last summer, Saint Charles appointed a small group to assess the sustainability of our school which concluded that, though it might make better fiscal sense to close the school doors, sentiment to fight on multiple levels was strong enough to consider options for remaining open. There weren’t many. Remaining a small neighborhood school wouldn’t fly because of the lack of a neighborhood from which to draw and retaining a bare-boned staff to teach wouldn’t give students what they need to be successful. We looked at consolidating with other educational sites but that takes years of cooperation that didn’t exist. So we concluded that our best option was to become a destination school that provides a unique style of education that can benefit students and their families for our modern times. It didn’t take long to be sold on the value of the classical liberal arts model that stresses heightened language and literature, logic and problem-solving skills, rhetoric and skills for articulation, creative methods for demonstrating learning, and a philosophy that allows religious belief to be our guiding principle.
Once we considered this switch, our principal, Ann Lachowitzer dove into the deep end. She researched strengths and liabilities, educating the rest of us along the way; she visited sites of a few of the best examples of this model in The United States, reporting her discoveries, concerns, and hopes. Her energy, optimism, and love for education make her a perfect leader to oversee this transition. Teachers soon followed her example in an effort to embrace the transfer from the standardized to classical model, even recognizing the additional work it will demand from them. That’s pretty much where we stand today: on a springboard to something great for elementary education in the heartland. As you might imagine, the view from the high dive is both exhilarating and a bit frightening. The months and year ahead will be telling as we measure success against our benchmarks.
Meanwhile, parishioners from Saint Charles and some wonderful members of the Catholic community of Kansas City have stepped up to help us assure financial stability for the next three years as we meet our fiscal responsibilities and goals. Others who had become convinced that the church was dying and drifted to other parishes to worship have returned to give it another try. Together we have embarked upon a Revitalization Campaign to restore buildings that had fallen into disrepair, even to support new construction to replace a seventy year-old parish office that was originally a convent and is now buckling at its foundation. In short, many positive things have occurred in the past year and we continue to work diligently to reverse the direction at Saint Charles Borromeo.
I tend to be both an optimist and a realist; but more than either of those things, I am a believer in the grace and power of the Holy Spirit. Far more satisfied than dissatisfied by what has transpired here, I am convinced that we are on the right track. I am grateful to parishioners who rallied with me and Mrs. Lachowitzer and who will continue to do so. I am humbled by many friends in the Kansas City region who became for us “parishioners without borders,” going out of their way to help, and who continue to cheer us on. I am encouraged by others in the metropolitan area who yearn for the arrival of classical education at this level, and I hope we can form a wide-range advisory group to provide guidance and, perhaps, growth to other regions. Yes, I believe that we are on the right track. And if you have it in you, please offer a prayer that we faithfully carry out the Gospel mission here and teach our children well.