"This was the most delightful day in my seven years as archbishop of New York," Edward Cardinal Egan told me in an exclusive interview following the press conference announcing the $22.5 million gift from Robert W. Wilson to an archdiocesan inner-city scholarship program. "Our schools are among our best charities. We give our students hope. We give them the tools to succeed. We give them the best spiritual guidance, which has been the basis for the schools' wonderful achievements," he said.
I asked the cardinal how this gift to his scholarship program came about. "Mr. Wilson has been a generous supporter of our schools for some time. When we presented a statement last year indicating the availability of 8,000 seats in the inner-city schools, he asked if that figure was accurate." Susan George, the executive director of the Archdiocese's Inner-City Scholarship Fund, assured him that it was, the cardinal said.
"He's a statistician and he can probably explain it better than I can," the cardinal said. "3,000 students will be accommodated this September, another 3,000 next year and the next 2,000 by 2010."
Cardinal Egan expressed heartfelt gratitude to Mr. Wilson and disclosed that following the news of his generosity, other donations had come through in the amount of $4.5 million, bringing the total gifts to $27 million for the program.
Mr. Wilson's gift was described as the largest in the history of the archdiocese.
When I asked if that gift would stop the school closures, he asked, "What closures? The media has come up with that term, but what we have done is merged the nearby schools so that students can attend the schools with the best facilities, the best chemistry labs, etcetera." Only two schools were closed two years ago, he added, and enrollment was up last year by 480.
I wondered whether the students who are already attending the parochial schools will be eligible for these scholarships. "Alicia," he said, "as you well know, tuition costs will be kept down if the school has full enrollment. Otherwise, tuition costs will continue to rise." The cardinal knows that I've sent all six of my children to parochial school and I certainly could not have afforded the rising tuition costs without some form of scholarship assistance.
Cardinal Egan emphasized that all children are welcome to apply but that there will be no change in the Catholic school curriculum. "Currently, 37% of our students are non-Catholic, and all the students take the Regents tests. We do not cherry pick students to take them, unlike in the public schools where only certain students take the Regents," he said. "The success of our schools is due to the fact that we have the best principals, teachers and parents."
He reminded me that the scholarships are not full scholarships but rather will cover what poor families are unable to pay towards the fees.
Cardinal Egan then expressed disappointment in Albany's failure to pass a tuition tax-deduction for parochial school parents, but he understood the pressure that the Democrat legislators were under. He also said he thinks that the governor did the best he could. The cardinal said he hopes that the legislators continue working towards this and realize that it's in everybody's best interests.
We also talked about the church closings, which have also drawn criticism from some parishioners. The most controversial closing involves St. Brigid's in the East Village. When the cardinal first came to New York, the church's pastor invited the cardinal to visit the church and showed him a caliper in place that showed how the wall was separating from the building. The pastor warned him how dangerous this was and urged him to close. Two years later, the pastor was telling the cardinal not to close. His is not an easy job.
I've known Cardinal Egan personally for around five years, since we connected after he read one of my columns praising the Catholic school education I received and for which I will be eternally grateful. I remember him telling me at the time to imagine what he could do with the $12 billion that the Department of Education gets for the public school system. Consider the results that the parochial school system gets with a fraction of those funds: The percentage of high school seniors who graduate is 96%; the percentage of graduates who pursue post-secondary education is 97%. Students attending Catholic inner city elementary schools in the Archdiocese have outperformed New York City public school students in the 4th and 8th grade math and English standardized tests in the past five years. This profile is of the inner city schools where more than 50% of the students come from single-parent homes and 50% are near or below the federal poverty level.
The results were enough to impress Mr. Wilson, who appearing with Cardinal Egan at the press conference, identified himself as an atheist who nonetheless appreciates the job parochial schools do in the inner-city.
As for the cardinal, he could not have spoken more enthusiastically when he told me, "In my opinion this is not only a tremendous gift to the Catholic school system but to the entire city of New York."