Overcoming many obstacles, Catholics in the United States, over the last two centuries, built the largest private school system in the world. At its height in 1965, the system was comprised of 13,500 schools serving 5.6 million students across primary (4.5 million) and secondary levels. Tens of millions of Catholics—laity, priests, and consecrated religious—have been trained in the schools and their significance within American Catholicism and American history more generally can hardly be overstated.
The mission of Catholic education originated in the evangelical mandate of Christ: “Go and teach all nations.” The handing on of the faith from generation to generation is part and parcel of the Christian imperative to evangelize, to spread the gospel message. In this particular aspect of evangelization, the Church has always recognized the primary responsibility of parents: “Since parents have given children their life, they are bound by the most serious obligation to educate their offspring and therefore must be recognized as the primary and principal educators.” (Gravissimum Educationis, no. 3). Yet the Church has also recognized that parents are aided by the wider Christian community. In those times and places where formal schooling has been practicable, the Church has recommended Catholic schools as vital contributors to the tasks of catechesis and moral formation.
The urgency of these tasks in the fledgling United States were such that support of Catholic schooling became a major—if not the primary—focus of the American Church’s financial, personnel, and spiritual resources.
The first parochial school in the United States was St. Mary’s in Philadelphia, founded in 1783. As the Catholic population expanded numerically and geographically over the course of the nineteenth century, an increasing number of Catholic schools sprouted across the American landscape. Indispensable to this development were the efforts of teaching sisters, of whom Elizabeth Seton’s band of Sisters of Charity were but the earliest example. Other important congregations included Felicians, School Sisters of Notre Dame, and Ursulines.
Although Catholic schools proliferated in places such as Baltimore, where Mother Mary Lange's Sisters of Providence educated black children, and Philadelphia, where St. John Neumann presided over the construction of many schools, the burgeoning population of Catholic immigrants in the late nineteenth century outstripped available resources. As Protestant (and, later, secular) schooling became gradually more widespread and pervasive, the urgency of Catholic schooling intensified.
The decision to engage systematically in the creation of a Catholic school network was not undertaken lightly. In New York, Bishop John Hughes argued vehemently for the right of Catholic students to Catholic education at public expense. The ensuing imbroglio stifled the idea of equal access to public funds for religious schools and set New York’s public (but Protestant) schools on the path to secularization. In Minnesota, Archbishop John Ireland sought a compromise that would avoid the necessity of a costly separate school system. He arranged to send Catholic children to public schools followed by separate catechism classes. Implemented in the towns of Faribault and Stillwater, the compromise, instead of proving a modus vivendi, evoked the hostility of both church-state watchdogs in Minnesota—who objected to the mingling of public schools and religious education—and Catholic bishops across the country—who thought the compromise undermined the ideal of a genuine Catholic education.
With other options seemingly exhausted, the nation’s bishops enacted a strongly worded proclamation during the course of their deliberations at the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore (1884): “All Catholic parents are bound to send their children to the parochial schools … unless it be lawful to send them to other schools on account of a sufficient cause, approved by the Bishop, and with opportune cautions and remedies.” The Council called for the erection of a school in every parish and urged that resistant pastors be made to comply or removed. Henceforth, the dioceses of the United States were committed irrevocably to the creation and perpetuation of a system of parochial schools.
The energy and resources devoted to the task are nothing short of astonishing. A largely immigrant church, in per capita terms much poorer than the church of today, fulfilled the bishops’ mandate in parish after parish across the nation. Urban parishes no longer consisted of solitary edifices crowned with a steeple; they instead comprised entire city blocks, replete with a rectory, a convent, and a school, at the least. A large percentage of this physical plant as well as the personnel serving it was devoted to the education of the parish’s youth.
The history of Catholic high schools is entwined in this broader history of Catholic education. The early Catholic colleges (e.g., Georgetown, founded 1789) offered curricula that were the equivalent of what is today a secondary education. Many contemporary universities evolved out of the older colleges, separating into secondary and tertiary levels. (Thus, for instance, there exist today in Milwaukee, Marquette University and Marquette University High School.)
Given this point of origin, it is not surprising that religious orders, founders of the early colleges, dominated the landscape of the early high schools. Preeminent was the Society of Jesus, sponsor of some 49 extant high schools. Christian Brothers, Dominicans, Franciscans and other congregations promoted in their distinctive ways the Church’s mission in secondary education.
High schools were also created at the parish and diocesan levels. Roman Catholic High School in Philadelphia (1890) was the first secondary school founded by a diocese. Because relatively few parishes possessed the resources necessary to provide K-12 education, high schools commonly served a number of “feeder” parishes pooled from several neighborhoods or smaller communities. Declining enrollments after 1965 gave further impetus to consolidation and the formation of regional rather than parochial high schools.
The question of public funding aside, Catholic schools have also had to deal with government regulation and, at times, hostility. The most serious threat came in the 1920s when an Oregon state law virtually prohibited Catholic schooling. The measure was struck down by an appellate court, a ruling confirmed by the US Supreme Court in Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925).
Other controversies roiling American society were also felt within Catholic institutions. In the South, the extension of desegregation to Catholic schools was contentious: Archbishop Joseph Rummel of New Orleans accomplished it in 1962 only in the face of stiff opposition.
The vision furnished by Third Baltimore was sustained through the 1960s. Large Catholic families, generous financial support, and the dedication of consecrated men and women ensured that schools remained not only viable but genuinely “catholic,” serving students of soci-economically diverse backgrounds. Tuition was low or non-existent.
In the post-conciliar American Church, a number of forces conspired to blur the vision. Women religious, of whom there were 180,000 in 1965, now number fewer than half that—a declining percentage of whom participate in teaching. In 1920, 92 percent of Catholic schools’ staff were consecrated religious; in 2000, 7 percent were. The financial effect of staffing schools with lay teachers initiated a cycle of rising tuition and declining enrollment, which now stands at just over 2 million students. The decline has occurred while overall Catholic and American population has risen, reflecting the fact that the Catholic schools’ “market share” of the American student population has been sliced by more than half (from 12 percent to 5 percent) over the last thirty years. Catholic schools also face substantive criticisms from many sides, including interrogations concerning their orthodoxy, their commitment to diversity, and the moral and intellectual caliber of their students and faculty.
Despite these flaws, the situation of Catholic schools must be kept in perspective. Within the context of American education, many Catholic schools continued to offer superior academic training into the twenty-first century. Improved academic performance among students of low socio-economic status is especially marked. Dedicated laypeople, with remaining religious, maintained in many places distinctively Catholic schools, characterized by respect for persons, sound theological instruction, provision of the sacraments, and community service. Catholic schools continue to be schools of choice for large numbers of Catholic and non-Catholic parents and many schools have waiting lists to deal with high demand. These lists reflect the significant disparity among schools geographically: while many big-city schools in the Midwest and Northeast are closing, suburban schools in the South and West are booming.
In many locales, Catholic schools now serve predominantly non-Catholic students. By the mid-1980s, Catholic schools were less racially segregated than their public school counterparts. By 2000, more than 13 percent of students in Catholic schools were non-Catholic, versus 2.7 percent in 1970. In some individual schools, non-Catholic students number 80 percent or higher. Outreach to non-Catholic students is a vital part of many schools’ missions, but it makes more difficult the task of maintaining a strong Catholic identity.
While facing a crisis in many ways unprecedented, Catholic primary and secondary schools build on a legacy of success, influence, and excellence. Their current strength in the face of daunting challenges suggests that many chapters in the story of American Catholic schools remain to be written.
Acts and Decrees of the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore, Title VI: On the Catholic Instruction of Youth, Chapter I: On Catholic Schools, Especially Parochial Schools. Excerpted in