Memphis Miracle Superintendent at UD
One of the authors of a famous transformation of an urban Catholic school system addresses UD Catholic’s Education Summit
by Shannon Shelton Miller
A crucifix is a common sight on a Catholic school wall, and the one hanging in the hallway at Holy Names School in Memphis, Tenn., wouldn’t be noteworthy if not for the two pieces it lacks.
The figure of Christ is missing both arms.
Dr. Mary McDonald found the crucifix in the school’s attic, its home for more than three decades after the school closed in 1969. It resembled another she saw while attending a conference in San Diego, a piece she took as a message at that time that God’s people were to be his arms in the world and continue his work.
In reopening nine long-shuttered urban Catholic schools in Memphis, including Holy Names, McDonald had lots of work to do. Now retired from her position as superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Memphis, McDonald accepted the task in the late 1990s to revive the near-dormant state of Catholic education in Memphis’ inner city.
McDonald shared her story during a keynote address at the University of Dayton’s Catholic Education Summit July 12 in Kennedy Union. In its second year, the summit attracted more than 200 attendees gathered to discuss topics related to urban Catholic education.
“Everywhere I’ve been, the mission has remained solid,” McDonald said of her work. “Bring Christ to children, and bring children to Christ.”
That mission became more difficult to execute in large cities near the end of the 20th century, as the once-urban Catholic population began moving to the suburbs in large numbers. While Catholic parishes and schools in the suburbs flourished, dioceses around the country began closing urban schools because of declining population.
The Memphis diocese experienced a “paradigm shift,” as McDonald put it, in 1999 with the decision to recommit itself to the inner city and re-open many of the schools that had closed in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. Fueled by anonymous donors and the support of the diocese, McDonald began tackling the task of providing an authentically Catholic education to a mostly non-Catholic student body in an impoverished environment.
“This was not your grandfather’s Catholic school,” she said. “The atrocities and poverty we encountered… I never knew a city in this country could have that level of poverty.”
The nine re-opened schools, called the Jubilee Catholic Schools, have a student body that’s 86 percent African-American, six percent Hispanic, five percent white and three percent Asian. The schools also serve as community centers, offering literacy and job training programs for parents and family members. The model has proven successful, with McDonald and the diocese earning national acclaim. But the highest praise might have come from one parent who beamed at her children’s growth in Catholic schools.
“You know what you’re doing? You’re proving my kids are smart,” McDonald recalled.
McDonald now works as a consultant for Catholic school districts around the country, including in her hometown of Philadelphia. By continuing to promote the revival of Catholic education in urban areas, she stays true to the mission she accepted to be Christ’s arms in the world.
This article originally appeared as “God’s Arms in the World,” in UDQuickly, the University of Dayton’s news blog.
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