St. Cecilia Academy is one of the schools in the Diocese of Nashville trying to reach out to more Latino families. It is projected that in the next 20 years, half of the Catholics in the United States will be Hispanic. Valeria Santos, left, is a freshman at St. Cecilia and Grecia Andrade is a junior. Photo by Andy Telli
A wave of demographic change is sweeping through the Catholic Church in the United States. According to projections, in 20 years, half of American Catholics will be Hispanic.
The Diocese of Nashville, like many dioceses, is already seeing this wave rolling toward Middle Tennessee. One recent study found that 34 percent of the Catholics in the diocese self-identify as Hispanic, said Sister Mary Johanna Mellody, O.P., a member of the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia Congregation in Nashville whose assignment is to work in Hispanic ministry.
“It’s the future of our Church,” Sister Mary Johanna said of the growing Hispanic population.
While the number of Latino families in the diocese and the country is growing, the number of Hispanic students enrolled in Catholic schools hasn’t kept pace. Of the 14.6 million school-aged children in the United States, 8 million are Hispanic, Sister Mary Johanna said. Of those 8 million, 93 percent were born in the United States and are American citizens, she added.
But only 400,000 Latino students are enrolled in Catholic schools, she said. And that poses a big problem.
“We’re totally losing them,” Sister Mary Johanna said of the younger generation of Latinos who are drifting away from the Catholic faith of their families.
“They want a good education for their kids,” she said of Hispanic families. “They want the faith if they could get it.”
All of the schools in the Diocese of Nashville are trying to reach out to more Hispanic families, said Dr. Therese Williams, superintendent of schools for the diocese. And several have had some success, including St. Henry, St. Edward, St. Ann and St. Cecilia Academy. “The more diverse the school is, the more real world experience it is for our students,” Williams said.
But there are several barriers to increasing Latino enrollment, both cultural and financial. Schools have little choice but to try to find ways around those barriers, said Sister Anne Catherine Burleigh, O.P., principal of St. Cecilia.
“Are we going to reach out with the message of the Gospel to a new generation of immigrants?” she asked. “The mission remains the same as with earlier waves of immigrants taught at Catholic schools. Catholic schools exist to evangelize. The primary mission is to share the truth of the Gospel.”
This year, St. Cecilia has 21 students who are Hispanic, including 11 in the freshman class. That’s about 8 percent of the total enrollment of about 270 students.
“St Cecilia is really trying,” said Sister Mary Johanna, who is fluent in Spanish and acts as an unofficial bridge between Hispanic families and Catholic schools in the area. “To have 8 percent they’re really doing something here.”
Rather than a campaign to target Hispanic families, the growing number of Latina students at St. Cecilia is the result of “more word of mouth, person to person,” Sister Anne Catherine said. “Word of mouth is the best publicity.”
It’s how Leonel and Julia Santos of St. Rose of Lima Church in Murfreesboro found a Catholic school for their daughter, Valeria, a graduate of St. Rose School and a freshman at St. Cecilia.
The Santos family is from Mexico and moved to Middle Tennessee for Leonel’s job as an electrical engineer. Although Mr. Santos attended public schools in Mexico from kindergarten through college, his wife, Julia, attended Catholic schools. When they arrived in Tennessee, they were looking for a Catholic school for their daughter.
“We always want the best for our kids. We want to provide for them the best education,” Mr. Santos said. “In Catholic schools they learn self-discipline and high commitment. They learn not only skills and academic subjects, but they also learn the faith and values. That’s a complement to the education.”
When they asked about Catholic schools in the area, people recommended Overbrook and the Dominican Campus. But they decided to look closer to home and found St. Rose, where Valeria was a student from fifth grade through eighth grade.
When it came time to look for a high school, the Santos family returned to the Dominican Campus, home to St. Cecilia. “We really like it here. It’s like a family,” Mr. Santos said. “Every time I talk with friends, everybody recognizes this school and its reputation. They’ll say, ‘Oh, yeah. That’s a good school.’”
Marvin and Claudia Andrade both attended Catholic schools in their native El Salvador. And when they moved to Nashville, they were looking for a Catholic school for their daughter, Grecia, a junior at St. Cecilia who attended St. Edward School from fourth through eighth grade.
The Andrades wanted their only child in a Catholic school because “we want her to live her faith,” Mrs. Andrade said. When they came to St. Cecilia for an interview the first time, they saw that Mass was offered every day and the day started and ended with prayer, Mrs. Andrade said. The family found that appealing as well as the school’s high academic standards, discipline and the foundation it can provide for college, she said.
Nothing that’s happened since then has changed their minds. “It’s the best choice we’ve made,” Mrs. Andrade said.
Although the Andrade and Santos families sought out a Catholic education for their daughters, not all Hispanic families think of it as an option for their children.
Many Hispanic families don’t have enough information about Catholic schools, Marvin Andrade said. More information, “would help them to come,” he added.
The Andrades knew some of the Dominican sisters and learned about St. Cecilia from them, Mrs. Andrade said. But for families whose children are enrolled in a public school, “no one talks about private schools, so they don’t think about it,” she added.
Hispanic families who do send their children to Catholic schools can help get the word out, Mr. Santos said. “We can help on that one too by talking to friends. ‘This is my experience.’”
That type of personal approach is important in recruiting Hispanic families, said Sister Mary Johanna. “It’s all about relationships with Hispanics. It’s not about a poster on the wall,” she said. “You have to build a relationship.”
Part of that is helping Hispanic families cross the language barrier. It’s important for the schools to have people on staff who can act as translators and to help the families navigate a Catholic school culture they might not be familiar with, Sister Mary Johanna said.
In some cases, families need more practical advice, Sister Anne Catherine said, such as how to fill out the application, how to apply for financial aid, where to get uniforms, how to navigate the American college application process, how to get involved in the school.
At St. Cecilia, the school hosts a Family Night for the families of all new students, including the Hispanic families. But the school also held a second Family Night just for the Hispanic families that was conducted in Spanish, Sister Anne Catherine said.
“We welcomed them and explained information about the school … and how they can get involved,” Sister Anne Catherine said. “We want them as part of the community.”
Grecia Andrade and Valeria Santos and their parents all agreed that the school has made them feel welcome.
“It’s been amazing. I’ve loved every moment here,” Grecia said. “We’re really like a family here.”
Valeria echoed her school mate. She’s had the chance to meet girls from other elementary schools and from all grades at St. Cecilia. “We’re like sisters, she said. “We’re a family.”
But the biggest obstacle is most often financial, Sister Mary Johanna said. “We’ve got to figure out a way to get more assistance,” not just for Hispanic families but for all families, she said. “We’ve got to do something. We’ve got to figure out some way to help families.”
As the former principal of St. Pius X School in Nashville, Sister Mary Johanna understands the budget pressures and limited financial resources that school leaders face. “It’s not that schools don’t want to do this. They just have limited resources,” she said.
“Families need to understand it’s worth the sacrifice. They need to plan toward that goal,” Sister Mary Johanna said. “But then we need to help them.”
Sister Mary Johanna makes the argument that it’s better to have a student paying some tuition rather than have an empty seat paying nothing.
At St. Cecilia, whose tuition is the highest among Catholic schools in the diocese, “We’re committed as a school to provide assistance,” said Sister Anne Catherine.
Hispanic families, like all families seeking tuition assistance, go through the financial aid application process. A third party looks at the family’s financial profile and makes a recommendation on the amount of assistance they need, Sister Anne Catherine said. “And we go from there.”
St. Cecilia already has endowed scholarships for particular groups of students, such as those with an interest in the arts or those who come from large families, Sister Anne Catherine said. She would like to establish a similar endowed scholarship for Hispanic students. “I know there are people out there with a heart for this ministry,” she said of potential donors.
The payoff for such an investment is the adult that these students will become, said Marvin Andrade. He and his wife already see the changes in their daughter after her experience in Catholic schools, he said.
And the appreciation for how a Catholic education can change lives will spread throughout the Hispanic community, Sister Mary Johanna said. “Once you get a few families, then you get more. Once you get it started, it’s self-propelling.”