In February of 2008, Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I., appointed Sister Mary Paul McCaughey O.P. as superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of Chicago. Since then, Sister Mary Paul has been working to write a story of hope, renewal, and grace for Chicago's Catholic schools.
At the time of her appointment, however, the narrative of Catholic schools in Chicago was dominated by decline, instability, and uncertainty. Despite the brilliance of a few beacons of hope, the big picture presented some serious challenges. For the most part, Catholic schools were struggling.
In 2008, Catholic school leaders in Chicago faced trends of declining enrollment and closing schools. Between 1984-2004 alone, there were 148 Catholic school closures in the city of Chicago. With a financial recession taking hold and rising costs hindering many students and families from paying tuition, the outlook for many of Chicago's Catholic schools was uncertain at best, especially for those schools serving students in poverty or in under-resourced communities.
In 2013, however – five years into Sister Mary Paul McCaughey's tenure as superintendent – that narrative has gradually started to change.
After plummeting for decades, enrollment has increased in Chicago Catholic schools for the past three years. To put that in perspective, the last time the Archdiocese had just two consecutive years of growth was in 1965.
"I think growth is a grace," says Sister Mary Paul, "We cooperate with God's grace in continuing to grow as students and as persons of service. Whether that's for the young people or the slightly older people who serve them, that's what energizes me. It's in the air."
A career educator and lifelong Chicago-area native, Sister Mary Paul graduated from Marian Catholic High School in the Chicago Heights area, an economically and ethnically diverse community just 30 miles south of downtown Chicago. She later returned to Marian Catholic High School to serve as both principal and president.
After an earlier stint as a principal, she thought that she might become a clinical counselor. However, she explains, "I found out kind of quickly that I had people who were complaining with twenty, twenty-four clients a week." She realized, "Why shouldn't we then try to change the system so we can have healthy people everywhere? Why not change the system?"
Sister Mary Paul describes discerning her vocation to be an educator and leader as a "gradual conversion." After successfully merging Sacred Heart Academy and Griffin High School in Springfield, Illinois, she had permission to pursue a PhD at the University of Chicago Theological Seminary. After only a year in the program, her community called her back to Marian, and she became principal and president there for the next 18 years.
"I thought I'd already done my duty to education while still young enough to do something else," she laughs, "but it turns out...God had another idea."
Trusting in the ability of the Catholic school system to adapt, Sister Mary Paul has worked to rally renewed efforts to bring a Catholic education to as many students as possible in Chicago. As Superintendent, Sister Mary Paul draws from both her 40 years of experience in education and her openness to new approaches in order to lead pastors, educators, Universities, and other community stakeholders in collaborating on plans for the future. "There's no greater thing than walking into a Catholic school and getting smacked with that feeling that everyone is on board with really wanting the best for one another," she says.
For Sister Mary Paul, reclaiming the narrative of Catholic education in Chicago will mean finding ways for educators and leaders "to challenge one another, to support one another, and to teach one another."
With a vision of trust and continuous improvement, Sister Mary Paul intends to build on the momentum of three consecutive years of enrollment growth. In that spirit, the School Board of the Archdiocese published a three-year strategic plan in March of 2013. The document highlights signs of hope from the past few years and outlines a plan to learn from and build on these successes in the future. The plan suggests a clear path forward for Chicago's Catholic schools, and though it is only the beginning, a new story of growth and grace is steadily taking shape in Chicago.
Read Part II of this story.