- Closing Chapters: Urban Change, Religious Reform, and the Decline of Youngstown’s Catholic Elementary Schools, 1960–2006 by Thomas G. Welsh
Why has Catholic parochial education fallen on such hard times? Once identified as the most important component of urban parish life in the United States, Catholic elementary schools have all but disappeared from many of the neighborhoods they once helped anchor. Even widespread praise for Catholic parochial schools as an alternative to public schooling – a trend in educational theory beginning in the 1980s – could not stop the rapid pattern of decline.
The puzzle of this loss drives Thomas Welsh’s detailed study of Catholic parochial education in Youngstown, Ohio. Welsh, a public historian and community activist in Youngstown, identifies interweaving factors of demographic, economic, and religious change which translated into the eventual closure of all but one parochial school in the city by 2006. The causal factors in the story of change – destruction of industrial economies, misguided projects of urban “renewal,” the availability of suburban housing to economically and educationally ascendant Catholics, declining numbers of women religious to serve as low-cost teachers, and Catholic uneasiness and sometime hostility toward African Americans migrants – are by now familiar to historians who have digested studies of the urban northeast. Welsh has an eye on these broader histories (he is understandably reliant upon John T. McGreevy’s Parish Boundaries), [End Page 81] but is also attentive to Youngstown’s uniquely precipitous fall into economic hardship and its rapid loss of Catholic schools.
Welsh’s distinctive addition to the conversation about urban trends and parochial education is his attention to “the important role Catholic disunity played in the decline of urban parochial schools” (15). In particular, Welsh sees Catholics’ disagreement over the meanings of the Second Vatican Council as a key factor in the loss of urban Catholic parochial schools. Not enough Catholics, Welsh concludes, were committed to the kind of “inclusive and civic minded” (15) schooling model created in the wake of Vatican II and broader social changes of the 1960s. Catholics’ inability to forge common goals “rooted in broader societal commitments” prevented them from even having the chance to save Youngstown’s Catholic schools (16).
The story of the Immaculate Conception school provides a helpful case study. The school fell from an enrollment high of nearly 700 in the 1960s to a low of 63 in 2005. During the late 1970s, more than 40 percent of Immaculate’s students were non-Catholic, a figure, Welsh tells us, that would have matched closely the proportion of African American and economically vulnerable students. A pastor’s 1976 proposal to save the school by collecting a tax from parishes across the diocese won some supporters who saw an opportunity to act on a social justice mandate. But the plan met with resistance from a majority of school board members who were reluctant to invest in the school. Among their worries were questions about the wisdom of extracting money from Catholics to subsidize the education of non-Catholics. Welsh takes these board member’s resistance to the plan as “tacit” support for a “traditional model” of Catholic education focused on serving and saving Catholic souls (70). Priests and bishops conspired to override the board’s vote in 1976, but such measures were only stopgaps. The school closed in 2006.
As intriguing and promising as it is, the “disunity” argument calls for greater evidence and texture. Welsh narrates the story of the 1976 debate twice in the book (68–70, 181–82), an unacknowledged repetition that highlights the need for more stories to flesh out the meanings of categories such as “traditional” and “social justice” for the people involved. More than disunity, Welsh’s evidence highlights the lack of any widespread robust social justice orientation among United States Catholics in the post-Vatican II period. The possibility that urban Catholic elementary schools – and, more generally, city centers [End Page 82] like Youngstown’s – could have flourished if Catholics had rallied around a...