NEW YORK – Faced with a perilous financial situation and plummeting enrollment, the historic Heart of Mary Catholic School in the Archdiocese of Mobile, Alabama, seemed likely to close at the end of the school year until alumni convinced the archbishop otherwise. The caveat: They had to take over funding and operations of the school, independent of the archdiocese.

“This was the only way to keep the school open, and so, I’m willing to give it a try,” Archbishop Thomas Rodi of Mobile told Crux. “It’s something that we have not done before in the Archdiocese of Mobile, but I think we have to be innovative to keep our Catholic schools open.”

Outside of Mobile, this kind of setup between a diocese and a school is uncommon though not unheard of. There are 857 Catholic schools in the U.S. that operate independent of a parish or diocese, according to data from the National Catholic Educational Association.

Most of these schools, however, operate under a religious organization – Jesuits, Xaverian Brothers, Sisters of Notre Dame, to name a few. The NCEA doesn’t keep a breakdown of who runs Catholic schools independent of any part of Catholic hierarchy or organization.

From a diocesan perspective, the challenge of independent Catholic schools is a question of faithfulness to the mission of the diocese, and more broadly, the mission of Catholic education. Bishop Thomas Daly of Spokane, the U.S. Bishops’ Conference Education Committee chair, told Crux it’s a risky proposition for a diocese to take, citing that a school’s Catholic identity comes from the diocese or archdiocese that it’s a part of.

“I’m always suspicious at times when a school becomes independent, because there’s always the risk that it becomes just a private school,” Daly said. “It’s challenging to keep a school faithful to its mission when its identity rests in its independence.”

“An independent school will require great vigilance to make sure that it is faithful,” Daly continued. “It’s not interfering with it, but making sure that it is a Catholic school as we understand a Catholic school to be – that the church teachings are being promulgated; that the school is staffed primarily by, if not exclusively by, practicing Catholics. These are all great challenges.”

To address the “faithful to mission” question, some dioceses – including the Archdiocese of Mobile with Heart of Mary – are exploring audits to make sure the independent schools are adhering to diocesan standards. At the national level, Daly said that the USCCB is exploring an accreditation process for all Catholic schools – diocesan, parish, and private – through the nation’s Catholic universities.

“To be called a Catholic school it has to be recognized by the bishop, and I think the accreditation will help maintain that because it’s very focused and intentional,” Daly said.

Rodi admitted that the school staying faithful to the archdiocesan mission is “a genuine concern” considering the “uncharted situation.” However, he’s confident in the alumni group that’s taking the helm.

“I think those that are involved right now in trying to keep the school open and vibrant are committed to Catholic education. They profess a belief in the mission of Catholic schools,” Rodi said. “Catholic schools educate the whole student – academically, socially, culturally, politically, spiritually – and they have told me their commitment that the gospel values need to be taught and they want the school to remain Catholic.”

121 Years and Counting

During the civil rights era, Paulette Lewis was a “young, poor, Catholic girl” from a small town in Mississippi unable to attend a nearby Catholic school because she was Black. Regardless, her parents wanted her to receive a Catholic education, and through a connection her brother – who was in seminary at the time – had with a seminarian from Mobile she was able to live with a woman in the city and attend Heart of Mary.

Lewis said graduating from Heart of Mary “changed the trajectory” of her life. The school currently houses students in preschool-eighth grade. It had a full high school program through the mid-20th Century.

“When I finished, I was confident that I could compete in college or in any arena based on the education that we received and Heart of Mary was a very, very special community of young people,” Lewis told Crux. “I think it’s very important that children have a sense of belonging and community and that’s what Heart of Mary provided.”

Josephite priests founded Heart of Mary in 1901. Priests and nuns from the school marched alongside civil rights workers. Its alumni include former U.S. Labor Secretary Alexis Herman; Major General Gary Cooper, the first Black person to command a Marine combat infantry company in Vietnam; and Simmie Lee Knox, who painted an official portrait of President Bill Clinton, the first Black person selected to do so.

“When you’ve got that kind of history and you can tell those kinds of stories to children who figuratively sit in the same seats that those individuals sat in, then those children know that they’re capable of that as well because they have a lot more resources today than those individuals had during their time,” said Karlos Finley, who attended the school through fifth grade and now sits on the school board.

Challenges for Heart of Mary over the past decade are primarily due to a declining enrollment, which has led to a decline in funding. The enrollment at Heart of Mary plummeted from 227 in 2000, to 185 in 2010, to 73 in 2021.

Rodi said it’s been difficult to keep the school open for the last 10 years. Three years ago, the school became unsustainable and was turned over to a board of businesspeople who pulled out in January. The new alumni group was approved to take over on March 28 after raising more than $450,000 through a fundraising campaign.

Specifics of who will sit on the board of governors and the approach the group will take to improve the financials and increase enrollment are still in the works. Finley, though, said promoting the school through local churches, day care operations, businesses, and institutions will be a key part of revitalization efforts, adding that they’re committed to Catholic education.

“The school is going to be committed to the Catholic faith and to being a faith-based institution. That is who we are, and we don’t want to get away from that,” Finley said.

Audits and Accreditation

Finley emphasized that the decision to make the school independent wasn’t a choice; it was a must for the school to survive. That said, the archdiocese still wants to make sure it follows the same mission other Catholic schools in the archdiocese follow, and Rodi said the archdiocesan Catholic schools’ office is in the process of formulating those policies.

Rodi anticipates it will include criteria for curriculum, standard for the amount of time religion is taught in a day, and expectations for teachers.

In the Diocese of Trenton, superintendent of Catholic schools Dr. Vincent de Paul Schmidt told Crux of a similar situation where a Catholic school that left the diocese to stay open wanted to be called a Catholic school, and they had to meet a set of criteria to do so – including Mass schedules, sacramental preparation, and other general protocols.

There’s at least one other school in the Diocese of Trenton that has taken this route. Schmidt said they’re in the process of changing the structure in the diocese “so that they will report on their Catholicity more so than they have before.”

The situation with Heart of Mary in the Archdiocese of Mobile, or the schools in the Diocese of Trenton, is still rare, and usually reserved for situations where a passionate alumni group, parents, or community wants to keep a school alive when an archdiocese no longer can.

It does, though, figure into Daly’s stated reasons to create a national accreditation system for Catholic schools, noting that his committee has placed an emphasis on “fidelity to the mission of a Catholic school.”

“The initiative I think is to take a look at what we’re doing, and are we Catholics, or are we just kind of mediocre lukewarm Christian schools?” Daly said. “They’re not seminaries or novitiates, but I think the question brought about from COVID and then either the closures and now the enrollment bump, is what are we really about as Catholic schools?”

Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg