Sam and Kerri Canova had a plan.
Both were raised in South Omaha and graduated from Catholic schools there. When it came time to buy a house, they settled near St. Stanislaus Church and School near 40th and J Streets. They sent their daughter and son the half-block to the school with the idea that they would finish grade school there before moving on to Gross High School, both parents’ alma mater.
Now that plan has changed. St. Stanislaus School is one of three slated to close after the next school year under a new strategic plan for eastern Omaha Catholic schools and parishes, the result of a year’s worth of study.
Archbishop George J. Lucas delivered the final version of the plan on Tuesday. Known as Promise 2020, it’s intended to provide vibrant Catholic schools and parishes for eastern Omaha families now and into the future.
While it brought good news for many parents and parishioners, it changed the game for others.
The Canovas’ children, Anna, 11, and Sammy, 8, will attend St. Stanislaus for one more year. Then they probably will go on to St. Bernadette School in Bellevue to finish grade school. But Sam Canova wonders how the school’s closure will affect the parish and the neighborhood.
“We’ve accepted our fate,” he said. “We’ll move on. But I don’t know if our community will stay together.”
To the north, several longtime Holy Name families expressed enthusiasm about the new possibilities for the church and school.
Holy Name Parish will be tasked with helping to meet the needs of eastern Omaha’s growing Hispanic population, which will receive more attention under the plan, including offering Mass and other services in Spanish. In addition, Holy Name School will join Sacred Heart School and All Saints School in receiving leadership and support from the nonprofit Christian Urban Education Service, which long has provided a majority of funding for Sacred Heart.
“I think it will go a long way to help our sustainability,” said Tony Pflug, a longtime Holy Name parishioner who graduated from the high school in 1976, sent his seven children to the school and now has two grandchildren enrolled. He’s also a member of the parish council. “We’ll be adding some people and another Mass and that, hopefully, will feed more kids into the school.”
John Hospodka, a longtime parishioner who has three children at Holy Name School, said the parish is a vital part of the community. “This is fantastic, because they are utilizing the resources we have to reach out and serve the community,” he said.
Under the plan, 34 parishes will, through mergers, become 26 parishes within five years, although most changes will occur within a year. The proposed parish changes still are subject to approval by the Archdiocesan Priests’ Council.
The schools portion of the plan calls for closing St. Stanislaus, Holy Ghost and Assumption-Guadalupe schools in 2013 and placing five other school in a regional consortium with a common governing board, director, tuition, teacher salaries, marketing and fundraising.
Lucas said the plan demonstrates the archdiocese’s commitment to providing good schools and parishes to families in north and South Omaha.
“I know we have not developed a perfect plan, but I do believe that it is a very sound plan,” he said. “I promise to do all I can to implement it, and I count on the faith and goodwill of all of you.”
Lucas, at the same time, acknowledged that there is a lot of work to be done to make the plan work. “I can see where we need to go, but we’ve got to get there, and it’s going to take a lot of cooperation,” he said.
Some of that work already has begun.
In a first draft of the study released in January, both All Saints and Holy Name initially were proposed for closure — All Saints in 2013 and Holy Name at an unnamed date. After that draft emerged, a group led by Omaha businessman Pete Ricketts announced that it would establish a community foundation to keep Holy Name open.
The draft plan released in early May indicated that Holy Name could remain open under a five-year performance plan. All Saints could remain open if donors could raise operating funds to support it.
Deacon Tim McNeil, chancellor of the archdiocese, said the agreement to support Holy Name and then All Saints came after the archbishop held meetings with representatives of Holy Name, Sacred Heart, the CUES group and the Ricketts group to discuss the north Omaha school. The archbishop then asked if they also could support All Saints, 1335 S. 10th St. The CUES organization agreed.
“It’s a big responsibility,” Lucas said, “but they have a proven record, and I look forward to their expanding success.”
McNeil noted that both Holy Name and All Saints have unique roles in the community. Holy Name serves largely low-income families, offering a strong education that is seen as a path out of poverty, he said. All Saints does the same, enrolling many Sudanese immigrants and Hispanic students. Kids often come in two grades behind and graduate at or above grade level.
“They’re both beacons of hope in their neighborhoods,” McNeil said, “and he (the archbishop) wanted to sustain that.”
The planning process also identified unmet needs among Hispanics. An estimated 42,000 Hispanics live east of 72nd Street, McNeil said. That’s up 60 percent — or more than 15,000 people — in the last decade.
“We understand we have more work to do to meet the spiritual needs of the growing Catholic Hispanic community,” he said.
Lucas said the archdiocese plans to establish a pastoral outreach center in South Omaha to support parishes in meeting the needs of Hispanic parishioners and to increase the number of Masses offered in Spanish at multiple parishes. Among other things, the center will serve as a site for religious education for adults and children.
Archdiocese officials plan to meet with pastors and Hispanic parishioners within the next few weeks. “Let’s start moving right now toward that goal,” McNeil said.
The archdiocese also plans to invest in Sts. Peter and Paul School to make it more welcoming for Hispanic students.
Sts. Peter and Paul, which already has a significant Hispanic population, is one of five schools that would be rolled into the new Omaha Catholic Schools Consortium in 2013. The other four are Holy Cross, Our Lady of Lourdes, St. Bernadette in Bellevue and St. Thomas More.
Students from the three schools slated for closure would be helped to enroll in the consortium school of their choice. None of the school changes, however, will take effect until 2013.
All existing schools will operate as usual during the coming school year. Pastors and administrators have been asked not to accept transfer students for the next school year from within the study area. Special circumstances are required for a student to transfer, McNeil said. Principals and pastors can use their discretion to determine whether a transfer is warranted.
While most Catholic elementary and middle schools across the country still are sponsored by a single parish, a growing number are turning to such system approaches, which allows schools to reap efficiencies and can reduce competition for students and funds.
The first step for the consortium, McNeil said, will be to establish an implementation committee and search for a director. All schools and parishes will be required to submit strategic plans, moving toward more long-term planning.
The study itself, conducted by the archdiocese and a Wisconsin-based firm, Meitler Consultants, looked at the needs and resources of 37 parishes and 18 elementary schools.
During the yearlong process, McNeil said, archdiocese officials repeatedly heard in meetings with pastors, parishioners and parents that doing nothing wasn’t an option.
In many parishes, large portions of Sunday offerings were being earmarked for schools with declining enrollments, affecting parishes’ ability to carry out their other ministries.
The mergers and other cooperative steps proposed for eastern Omaha parishes are intended to make more effective use of resources and prevent duplication of services, McNeil said. Many parishes are close together, and some need significant capital improvements.
But Roxie Freeman said she’s “very frustrated” with the archdiocese’s decision to merge Blessed Sacrament and St. Philip Neri Parishes. She moved to Blessed Sacrament after St. Richard Parish, at 43rd and Fort Streets, closed. She grew up in St. Agnes Parish, which also is closing. Her dad grew up attending St. Mary Parish, which will cluster with Sts. Peter and Paul Parish.
“I don’t know if we’ll even join a parish again,” she said.
McNeil said the archdiocese recognizes that people have strong feelings for their schools and parishes. The archdiocese will have a dedicated phone line — 402-557-5655 — for people with questions. People also can email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
“We will work with them to help them through the transition,” McNeil said. “We know when tough decisions like this are made there will be some disappointment. And we respect that.”
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