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Closing of Bethel Park's St. Katharine Drexel Catholic School continues diocese trend

| Tuesday, May 7, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
St. Katharine Drexel Catholic School in Bethel Park, seen here Monday, May 6, 2013, is scheduled to close at the end of the school year.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
St. Katharine Drexel Catholic School in Bethel Park, seen here Monday, May 6, 2013, is scheduled to close at the end of the school year.

The Rev. John Hissrich loves eating lunch four days a week in the cafeteria with children at St. Katharine Drexel Catholic School in Bethel Park and teaching religion to the older students one day a week.

That's why it was so hard for the pastor of Nativity Parish in South Park to tell members at Mass on Sunday that the school will close this spring.

“I kind of looked at it as the kind of reaction I might get at a funeral home after the death of a loved one,” he said.

The closing of St. Katharine Drexel continues a trend in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, where 58 elementary schools closed between 1994-95 and 2011-12.

Diocesan officials could not be reached for comment, but have blamed the closings on a decline in the number of school-aged children.

The diocese formed St. Katharine Drexel five years ago by merging St. Germaine School in Bethel Park and Nativity School in South Park. But the merger didn't stem a slide in enrollment. St. Katharine Drexel had 135 students in grades K-8 in 2009-10 and has 73 now. The dicocese has said it expected 61 students next year.

Peggy Rabb, 45, of Bethel Park suspected that the school would close. She has two children there — Meg in kindergarten and Jacob in second grade. Jacob started kindergarten in a class of four children. His second-grade class has just three students.

“We're looking at other schools,” she said.

From 1994-95 to 2011-12, Catholic school enrollment in the region dropped from about 30,000 to 23,000, and the diocese has responded by closing, merging and moving schools to reflect changing demographics and population shifts. Cardinal Donald Wuerl North Catholic High School, a $72 million project, is scheduled to open next year in rapidly growing Cranberry.

Nationally, Catholic education reached its zenith in the early 1960s when enrollment topped more than 5.2 million students in nearly 13,000 schools, according to the National Catholic Education Association. Catholic enrollment declined to about 2.5 million students in 8,719 schools by 1990.

Casey Yochum, 40, of Baldwin has a son, Aiden, 7, in second grade at St. Katharine Drexel and a daughter, Addison, 3, in preschool. She doesn't know where the children will go to school in the fall. She hoped St. Katharine Drexel would survive.

“We had been trying to get more students in,” she said. “We just didn't have the interest.”

Bill Zlatos is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7828 or bzlatos@tribweb.com.

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