Bishop extols importance of  Catholic education to local economy

By Kenneth J. Souza
Anchor Staff

FALL RIVER, Mass. — During the first-ever meeting between a serving diocesan bishop and the Fall River Area Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Inc., Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V., took advantage of the historic occasion to extol the importance of Catholic education to the local economy.

“I understand I’m the first bishop to ever come to speak before the chamber, and it’s also my first time before a chamber of commerce,” Bishop da Cunha said. “I didn’t know what I was supposed to say, because I’m used to talking to Church groups and parishes. Speaking to you is a little different; but I hope that what I share with you is a common concern and that it will help us all in the work we’re trying to do.”

Noting that the collective business leaders and representatives of the Catholic Church share similar goals in wanting to “make a better life for us and for the people who work for us here in the community,” Bishop da Cunha said he believes the two groups need to collaborate on this effort.

“I think we’re all trying to help people and to make people’s lives better and more meaningful and I think that’s the mission of what we’re trying to do and it’s the mission of the business community,” the bishop said. “I don’t think any of us are here to just make money.”

While some people would suggest that the Church’s primary mission is to save souls, Bishop da Cunha said it’s also important to “save the whole person.”

“How can you talk to someone about faith or about God if they are hungry, if they are homeless, if they are unemployed, if they are victims of violence or abuse or injustice?” the bishop asked. “Those things also need to be addressed and taken care of so that we can then speak to them about the love of God and the goodness of faith.

“I am also convinced that when we work as a Church, building up the lives of people in the faith, we build their families, we build their community, we get people who are hard workers, who are educated to share their resources and gifts and talents with one another.”

Citing from Pope Paul VI’s 1967 encyclical “Populorum progressio,” the bishop noted how the development of people “cannot be restricted to economic growth alone.”

“Our Catholic Church and our social teaching have always been based on the foundation of the dignity of every person, solidarity among each other, and the principle of charity,” the bishop said.

Since its establishment 112 years ago, the Fall River Diocese has experienced a lot of changes, Bishop da Cunha said, but one thing has remained constant: “The needs of the people and the need for us to serve them.”

Agencies such as Catholic Social Services serve more than 47,000 individuals a year, providing everything from emergency housing and financial assistance to hotel rooms and temporary shelters for the homeless or those who have been evicted, the bishop said.

Boasting the largest food resource south of Boston, the diocese also provides groceries to more than 20,000 people annually and serves more than 47,000 prepared meals a year via various soup kitchen operations.

Catholic Social Services also provides transitional shelters for men and women who are getting out of jail and need help with job training and “putting their lives back together,” the bishop said. There are also programs for the area’s growing immigrant population, which assists “more than 850 individuals a year,” he said.

“All these things we do because we want to serve the whole person so that they may lead a decent and dignified life,” Bishop da Cunha said. “And the one thing I’ve noticed that is so important and needs to be emphasized more is education. I don’t have to tell you that if you want to save society and get people out of poverty and avoid addictions, misery and crime, then education is crucial.”

While the Fall River Diocese has a proud 112-year history, Catholic schools have been around since the 1880s, the bishop said.

“We have here in the City of Fall River, six Catholic schools — five elementary schools and one high school,” Bishop da Cunha said. “We are serving 1,312 students in those schools. If those schools did not survive, the loss would be huge for our Church, for our education, and for those children. But it would also cost the city $18 million more to educate those children who are now in our Catholic schools.”

By the same token, there are 21 Catholic schools in the entire diocese — 17 elementary and five high schools — with a combined enrollment of 6,573 students. Based on an average cost of $14,000 per pupil to educate a student in the public schools, if those schools did not exist, the bishop said, it would cost the cities and towns an additional $92 million.

“So the work that the Church is providing, with the help and support of the students’ families, is of tremendous benefit to our society,” Bishop da Cunha said. “And 99 percent of the graduates from our Catholic schools go on to college — that’s a testimony to the good work that we do. In the public schools in Fall River, I think it’s 61 percent who go on to college; in New Bedford it’s 62 percent; in Massachusetts overall, it’s 76 percent who go on to college. We provide an education in which 99 percent go on to college. So Catholic education is critical to our cities, to our communities, to our Church, to our state, to our country, and to our world.”

In addition to providing a solid academic foundation, the bishop also noted other benefits of a Catholic education, such as teaching about the values of faith, Christ and the Gospel.

“I often tell people that when we invest in Catholic education we agree to make an investment in the future; and that investment is going to pay back high dividends to our society because of the education that we provide and the quality of the students that we serve,” Bishop da Cunha said. “A high quality education (can also) help break the cycle of poverty; and therefore we will be less dependent on public assistance, we will be less inclined to commit crimes, and we will build up stronger neighborhoods and stronger families.”

Having been strong advocates for education — especially in response to recent city budget cuts — the bishop’s comments certainly resonated with the chamber of commerce board members.

“If we are going to pull ourselves out of the recession and economic issues that lead to crime, drugs and everything else, we have to provide a sound education through our public and Catholic schools in the area,” agreed Craig A. Jesiolowski, immediate past chairman of the Fall River Chamber of Commerce and president of Saint Anne’s Hospital. “I can’t say enough for your leadership and what this chamber has done.”

“Some of the members here today can attest to the fact that it’s very difficult for small businesses in the community to find employees because we can’t provide the same benefits packages as larger corporations,” added board member Carl Sawejko, owner of Sawejko Communications. “Finding qualified people to work — people with basic reading, writing and communication skills — is critical. So rest assured that each and every one of those (Catholic school) students is badly needed in our community.”

Admitting that “these are tough times,” Bishop da Cunha nevertheless felt the importance of education was certainly worth the effort to maintain and protect it.

“These are challenging times to keep churches and schools going as they were 100 years ago,” the bishop said. “But I think we need to bring an awareness not only to the Catholic community but to everyone in general as to how we all benefit from the quality of the service and education we provide for these young people. They will be our successes in business, in churches, in politics, in running our world in the future. I think that’s an investment we’d all like to make.”

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