A Brief Overview of Catholic Schools in America
Today the 7,000 Catholic schools across the United States are regarded as a gift to the church and a gift to the nation. But exactly when and where the first Catholic "school" began in this country -- or the names of the teacher and pupils - remains a mystery: A Spanish Franciscan with a few children in a mission outpost? A member of an early French exploration party, quietly teaching and preaching? A chaplain holding class for young ship's apprentices on the beach where some 16th-Century vessel had just anchored?
It's hard to say.
What is clear is that Catholic education goes back deep into U.S. history - to at least 1606. That year, expressing their desire "to teach children Christian doctrine, reading and writing," the Franciscans opened a school in what's now St. Augustine, Fla. Further north and a bit later, Jesuits instructed such dedicated Native American students as Kateri Tekakwitha (1656-1680), who became a Catholic in New York and taught Indian children in a Christian settlement near Montreal.
By the latter 1600's, English colonists had set up their own, publicly supported schools. But since all the colonies were overwhelmingly Protestant, the rudimentary education often had a heavily fundamentalist Protestant (if not blatantly anti-Catholic) cast. Even in Catholic-founded Maryland, Catholics were a minority, although with a bit more freedom, and in 1677, in Newtown, the Jesuits established a preparatory school, mostly to instruct boys considered candidates for later seminary study in Europe. The Newtown school eventually closed, but the Jesuits opened another in the 1740's at Bohemia Manor, Md. Well into the 18th Century, however, more-affluent parents often chose overseas schools for their children, including girls dispatched to European convent schools. Meanwhile the Catholic population continued to expand, reaching approximately 25,000 in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New York State alone by about 1776.
During the same period, Catholic education progressed in non-British America: In New Orleans, the Franciscans opened a school for boys in 1718. The Ursulines opened one for girls in 1727.
The American Revolution brought revolutionary changes, with the participation in the war by such patriots as Charles, Daniel and John Carroll helping erode anti-Catholic bigotry. Catholics in Philadelphia in 1782 opened St. Mary's School, considered the first parochial school in the United States. Not long after the Revolution ended, John Carroll saw his dream of a Catholic "college" take root with the establishment in 1789 of Georgetown, albeit mostly as an "academy" or upper-elementary-high school preparatory institution for boys aged 10 to 16. Ten years later, a short distance away Alice Lalor and her companions founded Georgetown Visitation Preparatory for girls, establishing a new convent of the Sisters of the Visitation as well.
Across the continent in the 1770's, Junipero Serra and his Franciscans were busy establishing the California mission system, whose ministry included the education of Native Americans in farming, Christian belief, skilled crafts, and other fields.
Ratification in 1791 of the Bill of Rights, with the First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom, helped Catholics further cement their place in post-Revolutionary America, and the new 19th Century brought a spate of developments in education. Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton set up a school for poor children in Emmitsburg, Md., in 1809, founded the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph, and made the creation of parochial schools a lifetime cause. Visionaries in the wilderness displayed a similar energy and dedication. In 1812, in rural Kentucky, a trio of intrepid women -- Mary Rhodes, Christina Stuart, and Nancy Havern -- aided by a Belgium immigrant, Father Charles Nerinckx, formed the Friends of Mary (later the Sisters of Loretto) and began to teach the poor children. They had company in Kentucky: The same year, the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth organized, with Sister Catherine Spalding as superior, and took up a ministry of education. And in 1822, nine young women answered a Dominican friar's call for teachers for pioneer children in Springfield. They set up their school, St. Magdalene Academy, in a former still, and when four became Dominican nuns transformed a borrowed log cabin into a convent.
If Catholic education flourished, however, so did anti-Catholic bias. Thus even ex-President John Adams, writing to Thomas Jefferson in 1816, bemoaned the "late resurrection of the Jesuits" (after their earlier suppression by the church), fearing their abilities as "printers, editors, writers, schoolmasters, etc.," though he acknowledged that under America's principles of religious liberty he'd have to accept them.
Not long afterward, another crusader took up the fight against bigotry against blacks, women, and Catholics alike. Elizabeth Lange (later Mother Mary Elizabeth), the granddaughter of a Haitian plantation owner, established a school in Baltimore for poor children and, in 1831, founded the Oblate Sisters of Providence, devoted to African American education at a time when slavery held sway in southern states, Catholics themselves engaged in it, and deep prejudices existed nearly everywhere. In a sense, she embodied the new American church: Of mixed racial and ethnic heritage (probably part Jewish as well as culturally French Caribbean), she was an immigrant, often impoverished and gifted with an indomitable energy, faith, and talent.
The middle of the 19th Century saw increasing Catholic interest in education in tandem with increasing Catholic immigration. To serve their growing communities, American Catholics first tried to reform American public schools to rid them of blatantly fundamentalist Protestant overtones. Failing, they began opening their own schools, ably aided by such religious orders as the Sisters of Mercy, who arrived from Ireland, under Sister Frances Warde, in 1843, and the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, organized in 1845 by Sister Theresa (Almaide) Duchemin, originally an Oblate Sister of Providence, to teach in Michigan. But such successes sparked a bigoted backlash, fomented by such groups as the Know-Nothing Society, committed to wiping out "foreign influence, Popery, Jesuitism, and Catholicism." Mobs burnt a convent and murdered a nun in Massachusetts in 1834, destroyed two churches in New England in 1854, and, that same year, tarred-and-feathered, and nearly killed Father John Bapst, a Swiss-born Jesuit teaching in Maine and ministering to the Passamaquoddy Indians and Irish immigrants, as well as to other Catholics, including former Protestants who'd converted under his influence.
Such attacks notwithstanding, the First Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1852 urged every Catholic parish in the nation to establish a school.
The Civil War divided American Catholics into North and South but also helped to further dilute religious prejudices, with Catholics fighting alongside Protestants on both sides. The post-war period brought continued growth in Catholic education, with the Second Baltimore Council in 1866 repeating the call for parochial schools and the Third Baltimore Council in 1884 turning the plea into a demand that all Catholic parishes open schools within two years.
The late 19th-Century also saw the continued development of religious orders, including the founding by rich heiress Katherine Drexel of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, to meet the educational needs of blacks and Native Americans.
"Throughout history, there is no more compelling instance of Catholic commitment to education than the school system created by the U.S. Catholic community," Thomas H. Groome, professor of theology and religious education, wrote in the 1995 HarperCollins Encyclopaedia of Catholicism.
By 1900, that system was up and running with remarkable vigor, to such an extent that in 1904 Catholic educators formed a new organization, the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA).
In 1900, an estimated 3,500 parochial schools existed in the United States. Within 20 years, the number of elementary schools had reached 6,551, enrolling 1,759, 673 pupils taught by 41, 581 teachers. Secondary education likewise boomed. In 1900, Catholics could boast of approximately 100 Catholic high schools, but by 1920 more than 1,500 existed. For more than two generations, enrollment continued to climb. By the mid-1960's, it had reached an all-time high of 4.5 million elementary school pupils, with about 1 million students in Catholic high schools. Five decades later, total elementary and secondary enrollment is 2.1 million. Although the strong commitment by church and lay leaders alike to Catholic education remains constant, changing demographics have had a major impact on enrollment. Approximately 25 percent of Catholic schools have a waiting list for admissions. The challenge is there are many school buildings in urban areas without a nearby Catholic population to support them. And there are thousands of potential students in suburban areas where schools have yet to be built.
For much of the 20th Century, the church in America, like the nation itself experienced challenge and change. Despite national solidarity in World War I, Ku Klux Klan bigotry targeted Catholics and anti-immigrant legislation discouraged newcomers after the war. At the same time, Catholic social justice teaching became deeply rooted, reflected in the founding of the Catholic Worker Movement, Catholic labor activism, establishment of the National Catholic Welfare Conference (now the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops) and participation by the Maryknoll community and other religious orders in missionary work around the globe. Catholic families, parishes and schools suffered alongside their neighbors during the Depression and proved their valor and patriotism again in World War II. Then came the Cold War, election and assassination of John F. Kennedy, reforms of Vatican II, and Catholic support for the civil rights and pro-life movements. As the late 20th-Century ended and the 21st dawned, U.S. Catholics faced the ongoing crisis of religious vocations, welcomed the invigorating contributions of Hispanics and other new arrivals, celebrated 2000 years of Christianity at the Millennium and reeled at the horrors of 9/11.
Through it all, Catholic schools were there -- for their families, community, nation and church.
Nearly 400 years after that first known Catholic school opened in Florida, they continue to be a gift to the church and a gift to the nation.