Standing tall with twin spires of stone overlooking Interstate 70, Most Holy Trinity Catholic church has remained an anchor in the Hyde Park neighborhood for more than 150 years.
A laminated black-and-white photo kept in the back of the church serves as a memory of a different time.
The photo shows a microcosm of the church’s congregation in 1950: the parish school’s graduating class. All are wearing graduation caps, holding candles and smiling on the front steps of the church. Every one of the 42 students in the picture is white.
Today, 92 percent of Most Holy Trinity’s students are African-American. All of the students receive need-based aid. Just one student is Catholic.
Therein lies the key to the school’s transformation — one that comes at a challenging time for Catholic schools regionally.
Catholic schools have lost thousands of students over the past decade, forcing the announcement of the closure of three schools this academic year.
Those students who left have overwhelmingly been Catholic.
But during that same decade, an encouraging countertrend has emerged.
Even as Catholic schools in the 11 counties of the St. Louis Archdiocese have lost 22 percent of their Catholic students, they have seen a 23 percent spike in non-Catholic enrollment.
That change is apparent at schools such as Most Holy Trinity in Hyde Park.
In the past four years, the school has retooled its recruitment strategy and school design to address demographic changes in St. Louis city, which has become less Catholic. The school set out to cater to the largely low-income, African-American and non-Catholic population in the surrounding impoverished neighborhood.
The results have been promising for the school. While other city Catholic schools have foundered in enrollment and face the prospect of closure, Most Holy Trinity has seen a 25 percent increase in enrollment in the past three years.
“Obviously, in our neighborhood, there aren’t as many Catholic families. We broadened our enrollment management and our perspective,” said Jessica Kilmade, Most Holy Trinity’s principal. “As the neighborhood changed and the parish changed, there was a response to those needs.”
A NATIONAL TREND
What’s happening in St. Louis is to some degree happening at Catholic schools across the country.
Nationwide, non-Catholic student enrollment has increased from just 2.7 percent in 1970 to 17.4 percent this school year, according to the National Catholic Educational Association.
In St. Louis, non-Catholic students now comprise about 13 percent of total enrollment, up from 8 percent a decade ago.
Catholic schools also have racially diversified. Nonwhite enrollment in St. Louis Catholic schools increased to 15.5 percent this school year from 8.9 percent in 2006. Nationwide, it’s 37 percent, up from 11 percent in 1970.
The St. Louis area has a reputation for a robust Catholic school system with a collection of elite college preparatory schools that attract enrollment across the region.
But the system has been challenged in the same way as other parochial school systems nationwide. Urban Catholic schools, which once were brimming with children from large Catholic families, many of them immigrants, have now shrunk as families became smaller and migrated to the suburbs.
“There certainly are more opportunities and seats available for families who aren’t Catholic, more than in the past,” said Kurt Nelson, the archdiocese’s superintendent of schools.
Even so, St. Louis Catholic schools still do better at persuading Catholic families to enroll their children. According to the archdiocese’s pastoral planning office, 31 percent of Catholic high school-age children in St. Louis attend Catholic high school, compared to 12 percent nationally.
Now, they also show encouraging figures with non-Catholics.
Nelson says the increase in non-Catholic enrollment is partly a result of archdiocesan efforts to better advertise that its schools are and have always been open to anyone, regardless of religion.
“We’ve done a better job of communicating that our schools are open to students of all faiths,” Nelson said.
Catholic high schools show the greatest increase in non-Catholic enrollment, which totals 17 percent, up from 9 percent a decade ago. Cardinal Ritter College Preparatory High School in the city’s Grand Center has more than 70 percent non-Catholic students, while Bishop DuBourg in St. Louis Hills and Chaminade in Creve Coeur have about 20 percent each.
Nelson said high schools have more non-Catholic students because they draw students from across the region, while elementary schools typically draw from local parishes and neighborhoods.
At the elementary level, non-Catholic enrollment inched from 7 percent to 11 percent. A portion of that gain can be owed to the resurgence at Most Holy Trinity.
To many Most Holy Trinity families, the school is a bright spot in a tired neighborhood.
On the way to Mass across the street each week, elementary school students pass two boarded-up buildings. Inside the school, students have a plethora of activities: violin, percussion, choir, filmmaking and drama, to name a few.
Four years ago, Most Holy Trinity leaders realized they had to change the school to better cater to the surrounding neighborhood. Around that time, the Archdiocese of St. Louis took over governance of the school from the parish.
Most St. Louis Catholic schools are still run by their parishes. But that has increasingly been shown to be a weakness for Catholic schools in the city. Relying on parish funds and Catholic students to fill classrooms has simply not worked for many schools.
Under new governance, Most Holy Trinity deliberately went about recruiting non-Catholic families. To persuade those families to enroll, the school had to prove it was affordable — tuition is often the biggest factor that deters families from Catholic schools — and that students did not have to be Catholic to attend.
Thanks to the archdiocese’s scholarship programs and the school’s fundraising, families at Most Holy Trinity pay on average just $600 a year. Typical Catholic elementary school tuition is at least $4,000.
The archdiocese has prioritized increasing scholarships as its best chance of staving off enrollment loss. The archdiocese doled out $9.2 million in scholarships this school year to about 6,200 students, most of whom are from low-income families. It’s working on increasing assistance to middle-income families, which Nelson says make up a large part of the enrollment losses.
Most Holy Trinity made other changes. It adopted the NativityMiguel school model, a parochial school model developed in the 1970s to specifically target minority, low-income students. St. Cecilia, St. Louis the King, St. Louis Catholic Academy and Marian Middle School are other St. Louis schools that use this model.
Under the NativityMiguel model, Most Holy Trinity employs a long school day — students spend about 11 hours at school daily, including before- and after-school care — and a 10-month school year. The idea is that the longer hours provide a safe, structured and productive environment for students, many of whom may experience instability at home. Most Holy Trinity also provides mentoring and high school tuition assistance to graduates, in accordance with NativityMiguel.
A FULL DOSE OF RELIGION
Many families who attend Most Holy Trinity believe the school is their only quality education option.
The St. Louis Public School in the area, Clay Elementary, has had trouble keeping students. Only 13 percent of students who took state tests there scored proficient or advanced in English, and none did in math. Until earlier this month, St. Louis Public Schools had the unattractive label of provisional, not full accreditation.
“Accreditation plays a big part of it,” said B.J. Jefferson, whose third-grade daughter and first-grade son attend Most Holy Trinity. “We don’t want our kids to have a bottom education.”
The Jefferson family is nondenominational Christian, not Catholic. But the parents always knew they wanted to send their children to Catholic school. The religious aspects of the school — Wednesday morning Masses, twice-weekly devotion assemblies, religion class and prayers before every meal — don’t bother the parents or the children, and they say religion is not being forced on them.
“They teach them about God, and that’s what we do at home anyway,” Jefferson said.
Editor's Note: This replaces an earlier version to give the proper name of the National Catholic Educational Association in the 15th paragraph.