New director of education ‘passionate’ about Catholic schools

Fr. Caruso leaves St. Louis U. High, joins Diocese of Belleville

Fr. Michael Caruso, SJ, wasn’t necessarily on the hunt for a new position.

Diocese of Belleville Bishop Michael McGovern contacted Fr. Caruso, his friend since 2010, to see whether Fr. Caruso could offer any recommendations for the Director of Education position, which opened in March when Jonathan “Skip” Birdsong resigned, effective July 1, to become the principal at Althoff Catholic High School.

“Bishop McGovern asked me if I knew anybody (who might be interested),” Fr. Caruso said. “We started talking a little bit and then one thing led to another. It looked like a good opportunity.”

Fr. Caruso, 68, emerged as a candidate and was soon the new hire. He will take over for Birdsong on July 1. Birdsong has been the director of education for six years.

“I think in a lot of ways. it will be a good fit for my skill set and my experience,” Fr. Caruso said. “I hope that’s the case, anyway. I’ve spent many years at various levels of Catholic education … preparing leadership for Catholic schools — secondary and elementary. I have a real commitment to that. I feel very passionate about Catholic schools and Catholic education.”

Fr. Caruso has an extensive background in education. For the last two years, he has been Vice President of Mission, Planning and Operations at St. Louis University High, a title with which he always was somewhat amused.

“I’ve kind of laughed at that,” he said. “I thought it sounded crazy. I’m an assistant to the president, with other duties as assigned. They invented that title.”

Before working at SLUH, Fr. Caruso spent one year as an Associate Professor of Education at Saint Louis University and was President of St. Ignatius College Prep in Chicago from 2010-20. He also has worked at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Mo., Regis Jesuit High School in Aurora, Colo., and De Smet High School in St. Louis.

Fr. Caruso has been a prolific writer. His articles and research have been widely published, and in 2012 he authored the book, “When the Sisters Said Farewell: The Transition of Leadership in Catholic Elementary Schools.”

Fr. Caruso is eager to get his feet on the ground in the large diocese, which extends east to Indiana and south to Cairo and other towns. Much of the diocese is rural, but Fr. Caruso said those areas and the parishioners who live there “are every bit as important as the Cathedral (of St. Peter) Parish and others that are so close by.”

“We’ll need to work hard to make them feel they’re a part of the bigger project and we need to be supportive of them,” Fr. Caruso said.

Expect Fr. Caruso to spend time traveling around the diocese to become familiar with it and its people.

“One of the things that will be important is for me to really get to know the Diocese of Belleville, to meet the leaders and get around to visit schools,” he said. “I certainly want to work with the outgoing director, Jonathan Birdsong, and get his input on how he sees things. What are the strengths? What are some of the opportunities? What are some of the challenges? And (then) to begin to work with that. Also, I want to work closely with the school board.

“These kinds of jobs, you have to work very closely with the bishop. A lot of this will be trying to implement the vision and hopes and dreams that Bishop McGovern has for the schools. I look forward to working with Bishop McGovern.”

Fr. Caruso and Bishop McGovern met 14 years ago when Fr. Caruso was beginning his 10-year stint at St. Ignatius College Prep.

“He was an alumnus of the school,” Fr. Caruso said. “His (graduating) class was having a reunion very early in my days there. He introduced himself and we got together. We truly became friends over the years. We got him on our board of trustees. I thought it would be good to have a diocesan priest serving, to get the perspectives from the parishes. We became good friends and had a lot of mutual friends.”

One of Fr. Caruso’s and Bishop McGovern’s mutual associates is Cardinal Wilton D.Gregory, the Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. Cardinal Gregory was the former bishop in the Diocese of Belleville and was Fr. Caruso’s professor of theology at St. Mary of the Lake Seminary in Chicago.

“He was an excellent teacher,” said Fr. Caruso, who also knows another former Diocese of Belleville Bishop, James Keleher. “I have a lot of affection and respect for both of those men. They gave me a good impression of the Diocese of Belleville.”

Fr. Caruso, reflecting on his long friendship with Bishop McGovern, said: “He should know what he’s getting.”

Bishop McGovern is confident that is the case.

“I am very glad to welcome Fr. Michael Caruso, SJ, to serve as Director of Education for the Diocese of Belleville,” Bishop McGovern said. “I have known Fr. Caruso for many years, having collaborated with him at St. Ignatius College Prep in Chicago. He is a wonderful priest and excellent educator; I welcome his leadership in promoting vital Catholic schools for southern Illinois.”

Bishop McGovern’s presence in the Diocese of Belleville, of course, made Fr. Caruso more intrigued by the possibility of pursuing the Director of Education role. Had the bishop not been in Belleville, Fr. Caruso said: “I’m not sure all the dots would have been connected in the conversations that led up to this.”

Fr. Caruso said it’s a critical time for Catholic education. Two Diocese of Belleville schools, Notre Dame Academy (formerly Cathedral) in Belleville and St. Ann Grade School in Nashville, will close at the end of the current school year.

Catholic schools in St. Louis also are closing. Declining enrollment is the key factor in the school closings. Fr. Caruso also cited the Dec. 31, 2023, expiration of the Invest in Kids Act, Illinois’ tax-credit program for private school vouchers.

“I think it’s a trend,” Fr. Caruso said of the private-school closings. “Families are smaller. Also, it’s no secret that many people are not engaged with their faith. The importance of sharing that faith through a Catholic school — and especially supporting it — is in a lot of places slipping away. So I think there’s a challenge there to see this as an opportunity to shore up these schools as best we can.”

Twenty-three Catholic grade schools and three Catholic high schools remain in the Diocese of Belleville.

In the past, Catholic schools have thrived, to some degree, because families were larger. Other factors benefited the schools, too.

“When you had nuns and priests and brothers working at these schools for paltry stipends, the people were given a great gift,” Fr. Caruso said. “Then when those folks disappeared almost overnight, we were still trying to keep these schools going and we relied on very generous people stepping forward.”

Fr. Caruso said financial issues faced by private schools remain. Teachers, for example, often choose to work in public schools because salaries are traditionally higher. Retaining quality educators and remaining on firm financial footing don’t always co-exist.

“The people that work in Catholic schools want to have a roof over their heads; they have children that they need to educate and take care of; they would like to have a car that’s in good working order; and they would probably like to go on a little vacation in the summer,” Fr. Caruso said. “These aren’t pie-in-the-sky things.

“I don’t think our Catholic schools have completely adjusted to the new economic reality. Any school budget, about 80% of it goes to faculty salaries and benefits. It’s not an easy nut to crack. Schools have to begin planning judiciously for these times ahead. A bake sale or a cookie sale isn’t going to do it.”