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Urban Catholic Schools Closing As Enrollment and Income Fall

THE sign in front reads: ``Help Keep Quigley South's Dream Alive.'' But the dream appears to be nearing an end. This Roman Catholic seminary high school on Chicago's South Side is slated to close this summer - part of a general retrenchment facing the Catholic Church in many large cities. And some lay Catholics are taking to the streets to protest.

``They just came in here and said: Do this. And that's wrong, because we are the church,'' says Miriam Guthrie, whose youngest son is a sophomore at Quigley South. ``My faith has been shaken.''

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Last year in Detroit, Catholics demonstrated and filed lawsuits after Cardinal Edmund Szoka ordered 30 parishes to close. The planned closing of two Catholic schools in Long Island, N.Y., has sparked local protests this year.

Here in Chicago, which has the nation's largest Catholic school system, students, parents, and teachers have held vigils, picketed the house of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, and asked church leaders to reverse their decision, announced Jan. 21, to close Quigley South.

In many urban areas, Catholic schools are often seen as the last bastions of safe, quality education. But they also are buffeted by the same forces that have hit urban public schools. Declining enrollments, budget shortfalls, and - in the church's case - shrinking memberships are forcing officials to make dramatic cuts.

Between 1965 and 1989, the Baby Bust and the flight to the suburbs helped reduce Catholic elementary school enrollments nationwide by nearly 60 percent, from 4.5 million to 1.9 million; the number of elementary schools, now totaling 7,819, is down 26 percent in the same period.

In addition, the dwindling number of nuns, priests, and brothers, who once ran the schools has been replaced by lay Catholics, who require much higher salaries.

Such statistics don't make the changes any easier for parents and students to take.

``We've written to the Pope,'' says John Meek, a Quigley South sophomore. But he doubts Quigley South can remain a seminary school, an institution aiming to encourage young men to become priests.

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In addition to Quigley South, the Archdiocese of Chicago plans to close 22 parishes, two mission churches, and nine elementary schools - most of them by mid-year. Technically, the archdiocese closed its other seminary high school, Quigley North, and then opened a new facility located at least temporarily at Quigley North. Similar consolidations will turn four other schools into two and 11 other parishes into five. The archdiocese currently has more than 400 parishes and 350 schools.

Last year, the archdiocese borrowed $9.5 million, taking on loans from commercial banks for the first time in its 147-year history. The closings would save more than $13 million a year and, with a planned boost of $30 million annually from increased tuition and donations, the archdiocese would be back in the black.

``A lot needs to change if the church is going to continue to serve all parts of the archdiocese strongly,'' says spokeswoman Joy Clough.

Privately, some Catholic researchers say that church officials should not measure a school's or parish's viability by its revenue. Publicly, Quigley South supporters say much the same thing

``It's a perfect example of what the world should be,'' says Donald Wardrope, a retiree who volunteers in the school twice a week. ``I've got these kids - black, white, and Hispanic - coming up and hugging me.''

Recently, supporters presented the archdiocese with a plan to keep the 600-student school open.

Other Catholic schools submitted two other plans for the facility. A decision from the archdiocese is expected soon.

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