In the scripture readings on March 23, St. Paul in his letter to the Romans admonishes that fledgling community of believers that hope never fails. Were the ‘tentmaker’ missionizing today he might well add to his exhortation the words: “just look at Camden!” No, not Camden, Delaware; I mean the one on the other side of the river in the Garden State.
That Camden is the one many in our nation have written off as an irredeemably godforsaken place. In response to the decision by the Camden diocese to close several of its parochial schools, a group of determined believers, under the executive directorship of Sister Karen Dietrich, a Sister of Saint Joseph (no surprise there), and with the critically visionary support of the Healey Education Foundation, created an organization named the Catholic Partnership Schools (CPS) (www.catholicpartnershipschools.org). Now, in that violent, poverty stricken town, five elementary schools with such redolent names as ‘Sacred Heart,’ ‘Holy Name’ and ‘St. Cecilia’ are administered as one but retain their individual identities. Consequently, they can operate not just with the benefit of lower overhead but also with the encouragement and support that come with a partnership community.
To be sure, there are other models around the country for revitalizing inner-city parochial schools, some covered by this column in the past. But, none surpasses the promise of CPS where around 1,000 students – 93 percent of whose families are below poverty level and 50 percent of whom are non-Catholic – all receive an excellent, student-centered academic education “defined by faith-based values, rooted in respect, and compelled by justice.” To cite an eye-opening example: in one of the five schools, over 90 percent of its pupils subsequently graduate from high school as compared to fewer than 25 percent at the two local Camden City public high schools.
Visit its website, in particular its video clips. On one the dreams of the students in the school is captured in a song about God’s goodness. Its repeated lyric is: “creative things are yet to be done, creative things are still to come in this city.” Sounds like something St. Paul would proclaim, doesn’t it?
I repeat. Go to the website. If you’re a non-believer, green shoots will sprout in the barren soil of your soul. If you embrace faith in any extent, it will be nourished. If you’re an American, you will rejoice at this real, vibrant example of how the liberty enshrined in our Constitution enables women and men – free to do what is right – to collaborate in the face of dehumanizing forces. And, if you’re like me, you will choke up at how Sister Karen and her colleagues are advancing the Kingdom.
Some object to Catholic schools educating non-Catholic kids. I am reminded of the answer given by a canon lawyer when asked about the status of children in an annulled marriage: in the eyes of God, every child is a child of God.