By Renée K. Gadoua
Once a week, Rev. John Manno teaches the 6th grade religion class at Holy Family School in Fairmount. The pastor also joins students for lunch and for recess occasionally.
“They’re so used to seeing the priests in a formal setting,” he said. “It just drives them crazy, in a good way, when they see us in the cafeteria or on the basketball court.”
The interactions are an intentional effort to improve the connection between the parish and the school. Fr. Manno and the principal, Sr. Christina Marie Luczynski, CSSF, began those efforts shortly after they both arrived at Holy Family in 2015.
About 20 percent of the school’s 274 Pre-K to 6th grade students are from families in the parish, a number they consider low for a parish of 3,500 families. At least 1,000 families in the parish have school-age children, according to the pastor.
“It seemed low, and we thought we could do better,” Fr. Manno said. He and Sr. Christina hope to increase the percentage of parish families with children in the school to 40 percent.
Gone are the days when everyone attended their neighborhood parish and sent their children to the parish school. The area’s strong public schools also cuts the potential student body, Fr. Manno added.
The school could accommodate about 100 more students, but the campaign to strengthen the parish-school bond is not just about increasing enrollment. The school is one of the parish’s ministries. Although the buildings are physically connected, the relationship has weakened over time, and he and Sr. Christina are working to rebuild it.
“The school is not separate,” he said. “We’re all obligated to get behind the school and give it support. We’re all called to transmit the faith. It’s part of our tradition to have Catholic education available to our kids.”
The parish has taken several actions to remind people of that. One weekend Mass a month, for example, features Holy Family students — dressed in their school uniforms — as greeters, ushers, altar servers and lectors.
“It lets people see our school kids,” Fr. Manno said. “It makes it real to our parish that the school is alive and well.”
Second graders, who are preparing for their First Communion, attend Thursday 9 a.m. Mass. “It’s a win-win,” Sr. Christina said. “They get to see the older members praying, and the older members love seeing the kids. We support each other with prayer and service projects.”
The parish dedicates one of the church’s display cases to the school, highlighting artwork or class projects. “There’s a constant visual reminder that the school is there,” Fr. Manno said.
Holy Family also works to make the school more visible through simple marketing techniques, including adding the school’s name, logo and phone number to the church bulletin, increasing signage to highlight the school, and listing both the church and the school in advertising.
After the first year, Fr. Manno saw “a little spike in interest” about the school. “The efforts are beginning to bear fruit,” he said. “It’s going to take time.”
One initiative has already succeeded. The school now invites all parishioners to school functions. Each parishioner received an invitation and raffle tickets for the school’s biggest fund-raiser, the annual Irish Hooley. In 2015, the event raised $15,000; in 2016 it raised $65,000. Proceeds from the Hooley go to tuition assistance.
One popular activity is the limo lunch with the pastors, an item in the Hooley’s auction. “We hop in with about eight kids, and they love it,” Fr. Manno said.
Just as important as the money is the presence of Fr. Manno and Parochial Vicar Rev. Jason Hage, said Sr. Christina.
“They have to see us as normal, everyday people enjoying our lives,” Sr. Christina said. “How else are we going to get new entrants into religious life and the priesthood?”
“Anything we do now, it’s not just Holy Family Church. It’s both,” Fr. Manno said. Feedback so far suggests people notice the efforts. Recently, a parishioner told the pastor new signs on the gym are “a reminder that we have a school, and it’s a blessing.””
Renée K. Gadoua is a freelance writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter @ReneeKGadoua.