Making Achievers and Traditions
Catholic schools not only produce good students. They strengthen communities. History proves it.
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Sister Barbara Ann Curran, director of the St. Peter Cathedral School at Sixth and West streets in Wilmington, tells the story of a former student whose mother had decided to move, which meant sending her boy to a new school.
“She thought she could make the move more palatable by telling her son the new school had a cafeteria and he’d be able to get a hot lunch,” Sister Barbara says. “Now, at St. Peter’s, we eat brown bag lunches in the classroom. So when the child heard about the cafeteria, he told his mother, ‘But here we all eat together as a family.’”
That sense of family defines the culture of Catholic elementary schools, especially in Wilmington. And those schools are far more diverse today than they were in the 1830s, when the Cathedral of St. Peter School opened to educate the orphans of workers killed in explosions at the DuPont gunpowder mills. That mission has evolved as times have changed.
“By the 1850s, the Catholic church here aligned itself with a ministry of education for the arriving immigrant populations to serve their educational needs, but also to preserve their native Catholic faith,” says Catherine P. Weaver, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Wilmington. “The goal was to assist those immigrant communities in becoming successful ones.”
Today Catholic schools together would rank among the largest school districts in the state, if they were public, and those schools save taxpayers no small amount of money. What’s more, academic performance is well above the national average, by some measures.
The schools’ original goal of aiding immigrant and minority populations remains, though the ties of community are looser today, making it more challenging for Catholic schools to forge a sense of community among all the diverse populations it serves. Serving the distinct ethnic communities of Wilmington the way St. Anthony of Padua once served Little Italy, “peaked in the 1950s and 1960s,” says assistant superintendent of schools Louis P. De Angelo. “And then the world changed, and those original populations moved out of the city while our schools remained in place.”
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