It was with a heavy heart that I read of the passing of Edward Cardinal Egan and I regretted not getting back in touch with him after his retirement.
I had been very fortunate in forming a friendly relationship with the head of the Archdiocese of New York. While writing a number of columns for the New York Sun praising the parochial school system that had educated me while growing up in Spanish Harlem, I received an invite to lunch with Cardinal Egan at his residence on Madison Avenue. We had a spirited discussion about saving the schools in the poorest neighborhoods and I learned of the many efforts he was making to secure funding to keep them alive.
I continued to write about the need for education vouchers and received another invitation to breakfast which included an invite for the editor of the New York Sun, Seth Lipsky.
Mr. Lipsky, an observant Jewish man, has always been a supporter of the Church and always encouraged me to write about the crises facing it. The issue of school vouchers and other education assistance options for private schools was a constant issue in The New York Sun.
Legislative efforts to give tax credits to parents paying for both private and public education have been routinely blocked by legislators beholden to powerful teachers' unions.
Hopefully now that Assembly leader Sheldon Silver is no longer in office, the proposed Education Investment Tax Credit might actually pass. This bill seeks to encourage investments in education by providing incentives to charitable organizations as well as private individuals who give financially to support education. The bill would provide a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for donations made to public, charter, or private school scholarship organizations. Opponents claim that the bill is a slippery slope to vouchers. These are vigorously fought against by the United Federation of Teachers which would rather keep the students in bad schools with bad teachers than have them get a worthwhile education.
In 2007, Cardinal Egan gratefully received the gift of $22.5 million from atheist, Philanthropist and retired hedge-fund manager, Robert W. Wilson to the Archdiocese of New York to fund a scholarship program for needy inner-city students attending Roman Catholic schools.
``Let's face it, without the Roman Catholic Church, there would be no Western civilization,'' Wilson said. "Most of what the Catholic schools teach are the three Rs," said Wilson, 83, in a phone interview, referring to reading, writing and arithmetic. "And they do it better than the union-controlled inner-city schools.
Wilson's donation was the largest the archdiocese has ever received. The money was used to fund the Cardinal's Scholarship Program, which was started by Cardinal Egan in 2005 to give disadvantaged students attending the archdiocese's inner-city schools partial or full tuition grants
All my children attended an inner city school in Stapleton, Staten Island and Immaculate Conception Elementary school had been on a potential closing list for many years. Cardinal O'Connor had arranged for wealthier parishes to support those imperiled and Cardinal Egan was just as adamant in saving these schools.
Many of the students at this school live in housing projects and other unsafe neighborhoods. Many are below the Federal poverty level. The local public school P.S. 14 had the lowest ranking in all of Staten Island and parents sacrificed to send their children to Immaculate Conception to get a good education. About half the students were either Protestant or Muslim but they all were required to learn religion as taught to the Catholic students.
We had fundraisers, yard sales and I even ran a rectory thrift shop to keep the school open. We had a wonderful principal who secured scholarship funding for students. The level of education was superior to the public schools and matched that of expensive private institutions. It won Mid-Atlantic Accreditation. Charter schools obtain successful scholastic results using the same protocol as parochial schools.
Students attending Catholic inner city elementary schools in the Archdiocese have routinely outperformed New York City public school students in the 4th and 8th grade math and English standardized tests. 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.
Cardinal Egan, in keeping with the Code of Canon Law, offered his resignation as archbishop of New York to Pope Benedict XVI on April 2, 2007, when he reached 75 years of age. His resignation became official on February 23, 2009, when the Pope appointed Timothy Dolan as his successor, who took possession of the archdiocese on April 15, 2009. Egan is the first Archbishop of New York to retire; all previous Archbishops of New York died in office.
He will sorely be missed by those struggling to get a good education for their children in the inner-city. I remember sitting with Cardinal Egan at a cafeteria table when he visited Immaculate Conception. He talked about how the school had been spared from closure and that he was doing whatever he could to see that it remained open.
I met Cardinal Egan's successor, Cardinal Dolan, at the 125th anniversary of Immaculate Conception Church. He seemed affable and friendly but not nearly as reachable as the man he succeeded. I made several attempts to interview him to discuss the importance of the inner-city schools but my calls were never returned. A few months later, Immaculate Conception and St. Joseph's were shuttered and no parochial schools in the inner-city North Shore remain.
Clearly the archdiocese has abandoned its educational mission for the needy which was established hundreds of years ago. Instead the economic bottom line seems to count more than educating minority children in the neighborhoods with poor performing public schools and few alternatives. St. Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton set up a school for the poor in Emmitsburg, Md. in 1809 and founded the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph and made the creation of parochial schools for the disadvantaged a lifetime cause.
Edward Cardinal Egan understood the Church's mission very well and was a champion of the poor.
May he rest in peace.