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As Catholic schools die, reasons to cry

When it came to making sure her daughter, Lindsey, was officially registered for elementary school, Linda Beck never expected to walk into a school other than her alma mater, St. Paul's in Kenmore. But on Thursday morning, she made the unfamiliar trip to St. Amelia's on Eggert Road. She had barely set foot in the office when she began to cry.

"Both the women in the office greeted me, held my hand, gave me Kleenex and said, 'You're from St. Paul's,' " she said.

If the same scene hasn't played out several dozen times already since last week, it will, as St. Paul's parents deal with the dual reality of life without their beloved school and a future for their children somewhere else.

For the third time since 2007, when Blessed Sacrament and St. Edmund's both went dark, a Catholic elementary school in the Town of Tonawanda is closing. The reason is as obvious as it is familiar: not enough students. St. Paul's has 105, and diocesan officials said that only 69 had registered for the fall.

Numbers might not tell the whole story, but in this case, they come close.

In 1966, the year enrollment at St. Paul's peaked at 836, more than 6,000 students attended classes at seven Catholic elementary schools in Tonawanda, according to enrollment figures in the Catholic Directory. For years, expansion projects were routine as were classes -- not grades, but classes -- with 25 or more students.

When school starts in September, there will be four Catholic elementary schools in the town and about 1,800 students attending them, an enrollment drop of at least 70 percent from the mid-'60s.

The Diocese of Buffalo is fighting a losing battle to keep its elementary schools viable. If people are not leaving the religion for reasons that include apathy, disagreement with church doctrine and disgust over church scandals, they are leaving the region for economic reasons. For those who choose to stay and would like their children to have a Catholic education -- maybe the same education they had -- the cost can be a deal-breaker, even with financial aid.

Bishop Edward U. Kmiec wants the state to give tuition credits to parents of private school students, but with the state's multibillion-dollar deficit growing by the hour, the idea doesn't have a prayer.

James Mule, who has been principal at St. Amelia's for the last 15 years, knows what a huge role money plays. The school has about 500 students and figures to see a minor jump next year with the closing of St. Paul's. He and the school board try to keep costs down while still offering the same types of programs and technology that students in public elementary schools have come to expect.

"We find ways," he said.

The numbers say something else about Catholic education: The trauma happening right now at St. Paul's could repeat itself in Tonawanda. Enrollment at St. John the Baptist -- my alma mater -- which was more than 1,400 in 1966, has dropped to less than 300. Parents who want their children in a Catholic school will see that and worry whether that school will be there through eighth grade. If they think it won't, they won't send their child there, and enrollment will sink further.

Linda Beck lives closer to St. John's than she does to St. Amelia's. She knows the numbers. She knows what can happen. That's why her daughter will start fourth grade at St. Amelia's this fall.

"We can't go through this again," she said. "I have five years left with her, and I cannot possibly go through this again."

e-mail: bandriatch@buffnews.com

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