The Deacon's Bench

The Deacon's Bench

Stop the presses! A Catholic school with free tuition?!

Yep. Hard to believe, but true. At a time when Catholic schools are closing, are raising tuition to levels many parents can’t afford, one school in Pennsylvania is bucking the trend.

It’s free.

From the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:

When the Rev. John Haney came to St. Gabriel of the Sorrowful Virgin in 1983, the church elementary school charged a $50 book fee for each parish child to attend.


Get rid of it, Haney said. Providing a free Catholic education to parishioners is vital.

Flash forward 25 years. The Whitehall school remains free, and it’s the only Catholic school in the state without tuition.

Staying free matters, according to Haney, school officials and parish members, because of the pride, sense of community and passion it creates. They have done it for one another and God through tithing, said parishioner Francis Nowalk, 79.

“It costs a lot of money to run a school,” said Nowalk of Whitehall, who sent six children to St. Gabriel and is on the parish financial committee. “The fact is we’re doing it and not only are we doing it, but in academics we’re really on top of things. You’re not going to a second-class school because it is free.”


The eight dioceses of Pennsylvania include 443 Catholic schools, including five seminaries, 27 colleges and universities, 62 parish high schools and 11 schools for the disabled, according to the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference.

Only the 390 students at St. Gabriel don’t pay a single cent.

“It’s incredible what they are able to do,” said Robert Paserba, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Pittsburgh.

Average tuition at Catholic elementary schools in Pittsburgh is about $3,000 for the first child. The mean elementary parish tuition was $2,607 a year nationwide in 2006-07, according to the National Catholic Education Association. Secondary education averaged $6,906.

About 2,300 families live in St. Gabriel of the Sorrowful Virgin parish. The school’s budget is about $1.3 million a year, Haney said. The cost per student is about $3,300. All of that evens out to about $565 per parish family.


Some think the parish has an endowment, but it doesn’t, Haney said. The collection plate on Sunday helps pay for the school. Haney doesn’t expect 10 percent of a parishioner’s salary as the Bible suggests.

“People are generous,” said Bill Nee, whose sixth and youngest child is starting fifth grade this summer. “There is no required payments. There are no hidden payments. It just comes from the generosity of the people of the parish.”

Haney didn’t know how to cover education costs about 10 years ago. He lost sleep just before the school year started because he had $80,000 in teacher salary increases.

He was ready to use an outside fundraising plan to ensure the school survived tuition-free when Nowalk approached him about tithing.


It was in the Bible, Nowalk said, 1 Corinthians 16:2: “On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come.”

Haney wasn’t sure it would work, but it has so far. The parishioners have always responded when money was in need, Haney said.

Check out the link for more. What an inspiration.

Photo: by Joe Appel/Tribune-Review

Comments read comments(12)
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posted July 31, 2008 at 1:13 pm

My husband’s grandparents, Aloysious Dewey and Sarah Buck were founding members of St Gabriel’s and Bill (my hubby) went to school there until his parents moved. I’m sure Grandpa (who lived to be 100, and died in 1999) and Grandma (who died in 1985, I think) would be thrilled to know that the school was still tuition free!

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posted July 31, 2008 at 1:29 pm

I was just reading about the “Catholic issue” of school vouchers hyped up by the Catholic League. It goes to show that having faith in God’s promises to provide and people’s willingness to respond to and with that promise really makes a difference.A quality, Catholic education is a value we are taught to hold dear — for *every* Catholic; because of the generosity that Christ works through us, St. Gabriel is proof that people can care about everyone in their parish receiving such an education.

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posted July 31, 2008 at 1:49 pm

I’m glad to see a school living the Spirit of Charity. I’ve always been tremendously bothered by the expense and pomp of Catholic schools, and for someone who grew up in a secular public school, it’s certainly put me between a rock and a hard place.Perhaps the solution is just move to Pennsylvania. :)

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Mhari Dubh

posted July 31, 2008 at 2:39 pm

Delurking to say: as a Catholic School Teacher, it’s both inspiring and scary. FYI: For the most part Catholic School Teachers take a pretty substantial hit financially. I stopped comparing my salary to the state scale when I realized that a public school teacher with comparable education and experience can make around $10,000 more than I earn. Most of my friends who teach in public school have 2-3 preps (meaning they teach 6-7 classes but 2-3 subjects (Algebra and Geometry, or 7th History and 8th History)). Since I’m at a small K-8 with one class per grade, I actually have 6 preps (6th-8th Religion, and Social Studies/History) plus other responsibilities (after-school clubs, occasional weekend/evening command performances). And on top of that continuing education comes out of my very shallow pockets. Granted my principal does her best to help out by providing $$ for classes but that well runs dry quickly.Admittedly, much of my choice comes from love of my students, their families (most of them {G}), and the school where I teach; not to mention my absolute faith that this is where God wants me to be.Many if not most Catholic School Teachers feel spoiled for any variety of reasons. It’s still difficult to get teachers to stay because if you’re the sole bread-winner or single and trying to pay rent, utilities, car-payments, et al. you can’t afford to stay in Catholic Education.All that being said, St. Gabriel’s accomplishment is impressive.Oh and P.S. to the people who say, “It would be cheaper to bring back religious to teach.” In our diocese, religious are paid on the same scale and since they’re (for the most part older and more experienced) they would be at the high end of the scale.

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posted July 31, 2008 at 5:54 pm

Hi all,I think someone from Kansas should chime in on how they became tuition free (are they still?) When Bp. Olmstead was there they were able to become tuition free for all the schools there.Just hoping somone can refresh the actual goings on in Kansas Catholic schools.Thanks Dcn. for your blog and witness.JennE in CA

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posted July 31, 2008 at 8:23 pm

We have just closed a number of schools in DC. Thank God for the people at St. Gabe’s.

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posted August 1, 2008 at 1:15 am

“Just hoping someone can refresh the actual goings on in Kansas Catholic schools.All Diocese of Wichita Catholic elementary and high schools have been tuition free for Catholic students free since 2002.The Thomas B. Fordham Institute highlighted the Wichita story in a recent report. See

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Mr. Basso

posted August 1, 2008 at 7:49 am

mhari dubh, I teach theology at a Catholic HS, while my younger brother teaches music at a public HS. It’s hard not to compare pay scales. I have a colleague who started teaching in public schools nearly two decades ago, and last year she finally had the same salary at our Catholic HS as she did her first year at a public school.Another colleague with a pre-teen daughter lamented, “It’s a shame I am going to have to choose between working at a Catholic High School and sending my kids to one.”God bless Catholic School Teachers, and all those who make free Catholic Schools possible for our young people.Matthew 19:29Anthony

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posted August 1, 2008 at 8:52 am

When I interviewed for teaching positions twenty years ago, I was offered two jobs: one at a public high school and one at a Catholic high school. I was paid more at the public school than I would have been paid after twenty-five years at the Catholic school. The benefits were significantly better, too.

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Kevin - "pax tecum"

posted August 1, 2008 at 9:07 am

Michael said:”When I interviewed for teaching positions twenty years ago, I was offered two jobs: one at a public high school and one at a Catholic high school. I was paid more at the public school than I would have been paid after twenty-five years at the Catholic school. The benefits were significantly better, too.”So, did you choose wisely?

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posted August 1, 2008 at 4:37 pm

Of course I chose wisely. If a school does not value its employees enough to pay them a living wage (which includes paying back student loans), it is setting a terrible example.

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Mhari Dubh

posted August 1, 2008 at 6:58 pm

Luckily, teachers have excellent benefits in this diocese. There is no question about being valued. When I told my Principal two years ago that I was going to have to leave because of finances, she and the Pastor offered some extra responsibilities that I could pick up some extra money for that don’t take much time out of my life. I’m thankful beyond words.My school is small enough and in an lower economic area that we can’t raise tuition. I don’t know if our parish could support us through tithing. We have amazing parish support tho’–paid off our new school building 3 years early (old one seismically unsound).All that said, they are working to make our pay closer to state scale it’s mostly about enrollment at this point. I’ve told the principal she could publicize my salary to make a point.

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