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Wichita Parishioners Fund Full Tuition for Schools

Written by Bill Schmitt on Monday, 13 April 2015.

Catholic parishioners in the Diocese of Wichita have proven again that generosity knows no boundaries. A support system that originated for students from suburban parishes has grown into an annual $1 million fund that overflows into downtown parishes and reflects a shared passion to educate kids from all backgrounds.

The growth is a boon for parishes, families, and at-risk children, both in inner-city and rural Catholic schools, says diocesan schools superintendent Bob Voboril. The dollar amount is bigger than ever, but he says the solidarity connecting parishioners all over the diocese springs from a deeply rooted commitment among Wichita Catholics that he calls their special “stewardship way of life.”

Their St. Katharine Drexel Catholic School Fund simply reflects a mission spirit that started as a grass roots campaign among Wichita parishes as early as 1968, Voboril says.

He draws a distinction between the St. Katharine Drexel Fund, which extends a custom of parishioners jointly paying students' tuitions, and the benefactor-driven funds aiding disadvantaged students in some other dioceses.

It’s true the St. Katharine Drexel Fund was established in 2005 to help financially struggling parishes keep their at-risk Catholic schools operating. And it’s true that the fund is enjoying notable growth in 2015, doubling last year’s receipts of about $500,000 from generous givers across the diocese.

But there are at least two big differences between the Wichita Diocese’s fund, which has now reached its upper limit of $1 million, and funds in a number of big cities which make news by achieving ever larger benefactor donations. First, the St. Katharine Drexel Fund’s financial assistance goes to parishes, not schools or individual students. Second, the primary taproots for this assistance are other parishes, so the habit of solidarity developed in more well-to-do parishes over decades is simply expanding in size and in perspective. In short, it’s parishes helping parishes.

This innovative model of parish-focused support for school children affirms the long-standing, diocesan-wide tradition of parish-paid Catholic school enrollments. The tradition has its roots in one parish’s trial run in 1968, and the commitment of people in the pews to give generously, allowing their children to attend the parish school free of tuition. Thanks to a succession of bishops, pastors, and parishioners championing solidarity in contributing sizable portions of family income, the notion spread, and all elementary and secondary schools in the diocese were to have their tuitions paid by parishes.

“The spirituality of stewardship engages people to recognize that everything they have is a gift from God to be shared,” Voboril says. Over time, diocesan and parish practices—plus teachings of charity and trust in providence—led Wichita Catholics to embrace each parish as a central resource bringing faith to life and forming young people in that faith.

Generous laypeople embraced each parish’s pledge to pay their Catholic school tuition as an investment in the next generation, Voboril says. In 1985, the Most Rev. Eugene Gerber committed the Diocese of Wichita to stewardship as a spirituality that would drive diocesan priorities and decision-making. Bishop Gerber gave parishes a choice whether or not to fund Catholic education as a parish mission. By 2002, every pastor in the diocese saw their adjacent school as a ministry.

Voboril, as superintendent of schools since 1993, has seen the parishes sustain their stewardship of schools. He has spoken around the country about the path Wichita has chosen. The Most Rev. Carl Kemme, who became Bishop of Wichita a year ago, has joined his predecessors in supporting that path.

“The parishes recognize the extraordinary value of a Catholic school,” Voboril says. Now, about 70 percent of the diocese’s school-age children attend Catholic school, in contrast to a national average closer to 15 percent. Voboril says his own parish, for example, funds 700 Catholic elementary school students and 300 Catholic secondary school students.

Overall, a spirit of generosity has bubbled up among Wichita Catholics over the decades. Voboril says that’s the crucial context for the design and success of the St. Katharine Drexel Catholic School Fund, now allowing the generosity of people across the diocese overflow.

“It takes the stewardship model beyond parish boundaries,” Voboril says. The fund's money goes to the cash-strapped parishes where engagement is strong but a congregation’s resources can’t match the high costs of education.

This diocesan response to the recent years of economic and demographic change in center-city Wichita is already bolstering a sense of sustainable hope among Catholics and non-Catholics alike, Voboril says. Overall enrollment in the high schools is on the increase, as is the percentage of students from low-income families and under-represented groups: “It’s a phenomenal thing to see.”

The St. Katharine Drexel Fund approach for supporting urban Catholic schools may not succeed everywhere, Voboril acknowledges. But this game-changing outcome from the spirit of stewardship and widespread engagement in parish communities is achievable, he says, and a number of dioceses and schools around the country are emulating it.

“Does it work? Yes, we’re living proof, and there’s nothing terrifically unusual about Wichita,” Voboril says. But he cautions that the St. Katharine Drexel Fund’s success can’t be superimposed on a customary regimen of development campaigns and related contributions alone.

“It’s a way of living your faith,” he says. “Stewardship is a remarkable philosophy, but only if parishes decide to commit to the spiritual foundation, instead of going for the quick financial fix.” 

Photo: Diocesan schools superintendent Bob Voboril

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