With no tax money to assist it, Our Lady of the Angels Academy in Lansford is struggling to continue the century-long legacy of providing a quality grade school education for Panther Valley residents.
"Parochial" school, as it was called since its infancy, faces a monumental battle of being affordable to those families who prefer Catholic education for their children.
Proponents of a Catholic education, like Larry Furey, a Lansford native now living in the Boston area, said the resolve to continue is strong.
"We intend to be here for a long time," he said. "The passion of this group is extraordinary. They want for their children the very same thing they were able to experience, an education deep-rooted in the beliefs of the church."
Spiraling enrollment, changes in the Catholic Church in the face of merging of churches and economic issues have each taken a toll on Catholic grade schools. In some areas, where closure of those schools is imminent, supporters of OLOA vow to keep working to strengthen its system, which now encompasses the towns of Coaldale, Lansford, Nesquehoning and Summit Hill.
Furey, a partner in The Advancement Counsel, a Boston-based company that promotes the mission of Catholic education with clients throughout the U.S., is working with OLOA to assure its future. This effort includes development of an alumni database, marketing and strategy concerns.
"In order to make us strong, to continue this legacy of a Catholic education, we need to energize the base," he said. "Involvement leads to investment."
Furey said Catholic education in the area was built on a firm foundation.
"Great leaders, with our pastors and religious (nuns), helped build the foundation. Now, we have a school board comprised of parents and volunteers, and so our goal is to model an 'advancement program' similar to the kinds of programs established in high schools and colleges," he said.
He added, "With the challenges the church is facing, we need to find new sources of revenue to sustain the mission."
As part of the OLOA goals, an "all school reunion" is being planned for Saturday, Nov. 28, beginning with an alumni Mass at 4 p.m. at St. Katharine Drexel Catholic Church, Lansford, and followed by an open house at OLOA and the reunion beginning at 6 o'clock at Penn's Peak, Penn Forest Township.
The committee has adopted the slogan "Ten schools ten traditions ten legacies one mission" in inviting graduates from OLOA and its predecessor schools to participate (see related story).
George Stianche, president of the school's advisory board, said OLOA faced a critical time two years ago regarding its future. It was then that a strategy was developed to market the school and begin the process of seeking help from graduates of the 10 schools who live close and far.
"We received gifts from all over the country; from people who want this (Catholic education) to continue," Furey said.
Stianche said OLOA developed a database of alumni that has surpassed the 2,000 mark.
"Last year, over $60,000 was realized in an annual campaign that we started. It (the campaign) is under way again, and at its midway point, and we are hopeful the support shown last year will not only be there again this year, but get even better," Stianche said.
He said volunteers have researched church and school files as far back as 1950 to "reach out" to alumni of the schools that date back to the early 1900s. Mrs. Ida Totani, 99, of Lake Hauto, a graduate of the former St. Ann Parochial School, Lansford, is believed to be the oldest alumni.
Although the work is cumbersome, Furey said those doing it believe in the mission, because it is critical to OLOA's future. He said the school has four sources of revenue, including parish subsidies, tuition, endowments and fundraising.
"Fundraising does not mean candy and cakes, it means major gifts, planned gifts, and an annual fund, where alumni, parents, grandparents and friends can participate," he said. "It is the key to preserving a Catholic education and the legacy of it."
According to Sister Regina Elinich, who has served as principal of OLOA since 2003, the school operates on a budget of about $600,000. That revenue source includes parish subsidies, tuition and family fundraisers (sales, etc.), whereas the annual fund being established is aimed at providing things like capital improvements and tuition assistance.
"The annual fund is for supplementary expenses, but necessary ones at that," said the Rev. James Burdess, pastor of St. Joseph Catholic Church, Summit Hill.
He is one of three clergy members who comprise the school's Board of Pastors, the others being the Rev. Anthony Drouncheck, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church, Nesquehoning; and the Rev. Kenneth Medve, pastor of St. Katharine Catholic Church, Lansford.
Two years ago, OLOA had an enrollment of 128 students. Today, it is down to 111.
"With the economy, a number of families could not afford to send their children to our school," Rev. Burdess explained.
Sr. Regina added that other families moving from the area also hurts enrollment.
Despite less revenue, OLOA supporters continue to fend for themselves and remain in a wait-and-see mode.
"We're waiting to see what the (Allentown) diocese will do in regard to its strategic plan for education. It (the plan) is being worked on by the diocesan pastoral council, whose members will look at statistics, financials and different programs and hopefully give us some direction," said the Rev. Drouncheck
Proponents hope that direction includes financial assistance, although Rev. Burdess, notes that supporting and/or funding grade schools was always parish-based and never "reliant on diocesan support." Committee members acknowledged "diocesan support when the school was in crisis mode two years ago," he said.
"So, we're hoping they (the diocese) will help us look at and re-evaluate ourselves," Rev. Drouncheck added,
Meanwhile, Stianche said it is generally known and accepted that tuition assistance available to families is a key component to the economic issues parents face in selecting a Catholic education for their children.
"The endowment fund will also be utilized for that (financial aid)," he said. "Any parish member who wants an education here, needs to know that it can be made affordable. While the economy is certainly struggling, it is doable. The way this school goes is also the way the parishes will go. We believe that a Catholic education is an important facet of the total picture."