Supporters rally to raise $450,000 to keep historic Alabama Catholic school open

An Alabama parochial school that played an important role in the nation’s civil rights movement and recently was threatened with closure now will stay open.

Heart of Mary Catholic School, which…

An Alabama parochial school that played an important role in the nation’s civil rights movement and recently was threatened with closure now will stay open.

Heart of Mary Catholic School, which has operated for 121 years in Mobile and serves primarily Black students, will continue to operate with an independent governing board, according to officials of the Archdiocese of Mobile.

“After thoughtful conversation among all responsible parties, with support of the Archdiocese of Mobile, some national and local Heart of Mary School alumni have offered to take responsibility for the continued existence of Heart of Mary Catholic School in Mobile, Alabama,” read the Archdiocese’s announcement.

The school was slated to close at the end of the 2021-22 school year due to declining enrollment, but alumni and supporters started a fundraising campaign that took in more than $450,000. The school’s alumni include former U.S. Labor Secretary Alexis Herman and Maj. Gen. Gary Cooper, the first Black person to command a Marine combat infantry company in Vietnam.

Former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin, who served during the Obama administration, did not attend the school but gave $10,000 to the campaign.

“I am overjoyed by the fact that Heart of Mary School will continue to remain open,” said Nick West, a computer software engineer and volunteer tutor who attended the school with assistance from the Alabama Opportunity Scholarship Fund. West, who was recently featured on a reimaginEDonline podcast, said his nieces and nephews have also benefited from attending the school.

The good news for Heart of Mary comes amid reports that enrollment at Catholic schools, which suffered declines for years nationally and endured a rough 2020-21, are experiencing a rebound. The latest report from the National Catholic Education Association showed an increase of more than 3.5% during the 2021-22 school year.

Florida, which has fared better over the years due to the wide availability of education choice scholarships, outpaced national enrollment figures with a 6.3% increase during 2021-22, the biggest jump of any of the 10 states with the largest Catholic school enrollments. The numbers were so good that Archdiocese of Miami schools superintendent Jim Rigg described the trend as “the Great Registration.”

“Heart of Mary is a means of providing a quality education to students who otherwise would have been forced to attend a public school that didn’t fit their needs,” West said. He added that the Alabama education choice tax-credit scholarship program, which recently began accepting new students, will help boost enrollment at Heart of Mary and other schools and provide a high-quality education not otherwise available to families of modest means.

“I hope that increased support of the school choice movement will allow other schools like Heart of Mary to continue to serve students by providing students with a quality education that they wouldn’t have otherwise,” West said.

Heart of Mary was established in 1901 when Alabama adopted a white supremacist constitution to disenfranchise Black and poor white people. The school and its parish became a meeting place for Black people during the civil rights era.

Priests and nuns joined in marches and other demonstrations to support the Black community. You can see a video about the history of the school here.

School Board director Karlos Finley, who attended Heart of Mary starting in kindergarten, said it was a community that stood on the right side of the civil rights movement. He said no other churches would allow the Neighborhood Organized Workers, the leading civil rights organization in Mobile, to meet at their church. Heart of Mary was a staple in the community for those who felt like they had nowhere else to go to express their rights.

“The nuns and priests actually protested along with those civil rights workers and went to jail with them when they were arrested protesting in 1968 at the America’s Junior Miss contest,” Finley told WKRG-TV. The protest happened at the same time as the nationally televised pageant was held at Mobile’s new municipal auditorium to protest the lack of Black managers at the facility.

In 2021, the school adopted a new learning model as part of its strategic plan that allows faculty members to work in teams and focus on teaching their top two areas of expertise, established a corps of community volunteers to teach electives as “adjunct faculty,” and launched a new after-school program.