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Pastor Determined to Keep Catholic Education Free

July 31, 2008

By F.A. Krift, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Jul. 31–When the Rev. John Haney came to St. Gabriel of the Sorrowful Virgin in 1983, the church elementary school charged a $50 book fee for each parish child to attend.

Get rid of it, Haney said. Providing a free Catholic education to parishioners is vital.

Flash forward 25 years. The Whitehall school remains free, and it’s the only Catholic school in the state without tuition.

Staying free matters, according to Haney, school officials and parish members, because of the pride, sense of community and passion it creates. They have done it for one another and God through tithing, said parishioner Francis Nowalk, 79.

“It costs a lot of money to run a school,” said Nowalk of Whitehall, who sent six children to St. Gabriel and is on the parish financial committee. “The fact is we’re doing it and not only are we doing it, but in academics we’re really on top of things. You’re not going to a second-class school because it is free.”

The eight dioceses of Pennsylvania include 443 Catholic schools, including five seminaries, 27 colleges and universities, 62 parish high schools and 11 schools for the disabled, according to the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference.

Only the 390 students at St. Gabriel don’t pay a single cent.

“It’s incredible what they are able to do,” said Robert Paserba, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Pittsburgh.

Average tuition at Catholic elementary schools in Pittsburgh is about $3,000 for the first child. The mean elementary parish tuition was $2,607 a year nationwide in 2006-07, according to the National Catholic Education Association. Secondary education averaged $6,906.

About 2,300 families live in St. Gabriel of the Sorrowful Virgin parish. The school’s budget is about $1.3 million a year, Haney said. The cost per student is about $3,300. All of that evens out to about $565 per parish family.

Some think the parish has an endowment, but it doesn’t, Haney said. The collection plate on Sunday helps pay for the school. Haney doesn’t expect 10 percent of a parishioner’s salary as the Bible suggests.

“People are generous,” said Bill Nee, whose sixth and youngest child is starting fifth grade this summer. “There is no required payments. There are no hidden payments. It just comes from the generosity of the people of the parish.”

Haney didn’t know how to cover education costs about 10 years ago. He lost sleep just before the school year started because he had $80,000 in teacher salary increases.

He was ready to use an outside fundraising plan to ensure the school survived tuition-free when Nowalk approached him about tithing.

It was in the Bible, Nowalk said, 1 Corinthians 16:2: “On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come.”

Haney wasn’t sure it would work, but it has so far. The parishioners have always responded when money was in need, Haney said.

He said he doesn’t beg for money, and it isn’t a pulpit topic. Instead, Haney gives a state of the parish address each fall so the church knows the financial situation. And if families can’t give money, volunteering “time and talent,” is vital for the school.

“People make their own decision when tithing,” Haney said. “Tithing makes the person, not the pastor, share the responsibility.”

The parish even made T-shirts that called the school “the miracle on Greenridge Drive,” referring to the school’s address.

Haney estimates about 75 percent of the children wouldn’t attend the school if it charged tuition, because he considers the parish area’s public school system, Baldwin-Whitehall School District, a good district.

St. Gabriel Principal Barbara Sawyer noted that five students in the 2008 eighth-grade class of 35 were moving on to a Catholic high school. The previous graduating class sent 18 of 35 students to a parochial school, she said. She wasn’t sure that the souring economy was solely the factor, but it certainly mattered.

Having a school perks up the church grounds, Haney said. He celebrates Mass twice weekly with the students, which is always a lively affair. The physical education classes outside fill his days with noise and laughter.

And student success brings the parish together, he said, citing the girls basketball team’s 2007 state diocesan championship and the eighth-grade math team’s No. 1 national ranking in an online education program.

“They energize you, I’ll tell you that,” he said. “That’s why I’m still going at 73.”

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Copyright (c) 2008, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

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