Catholic Schools

views updated


In 1783 Philadelphia Catholics established the first Catholic parish school in the United States, and over the next two centuries, Catholic parochial schools would educate tens of millions of American citizens. By the middle of the 1960s, when the Catholic parochial school movement had reached its high point, there were more than 5.7 million children in parish elementary schools12 percent of all of the children enrolled in schools in the United States at that time. The challenges of providing parish-based education have changed from one generation to the next, but Catholics schools have survived in spite of substantial obstacles.


During the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteen centuries, colonial Catholics struggled merely to survive in that vast territory that would become the United States of America. In fact, the progress of the church in all of the colonies of the New World (Spanish, French, and English) was due largely to the personal sacrifices and skills of a cadre of great priests. Their willingness to give their all, including their lives, left a Catholic imprint on virtually every region of the country.

That is not to say that Catholic schools emerged because of these missionary efforts. It would take many generations for American Catholics to feel secure enough to establish their own schools. In fact, the very survival of Catholicism as a religion in America was in doubt until the late eighteenth century. Those Catholic schools that did emerge in the early decades of the American Republic were the direct result of a collaboration of interested parents, determined pastors, and compassionate sister teachers. Of special note was the persistence of Elizabeth Seton, who recruited and trained the sister teachers who were the backbone of the parish school system for nearly 125 years.

Yet the most important ingredient in the eventual spread of Catholic education in the nineteenth century was parental support. Beginning in the early 1800s, many American Catholic parents were willing to build and support parish schools. These parents believed that the future of Catholicism in the new nation was tied to educating the next generation in the ways of the faith.

Rapid social change and population growth, accompanied by misunderstanding, hostility, and resistance, were important ingredients in the process of Catholic educational development in the years before the Civil War. Civic leaders argued in favor of common schools that would transform a diverse population of children into a homogeneous, deferential, and very American citizenry. Catholics resisted these common schools because of their distinct Protestant overtone, and they built their own schools.

The tensions between public and Catholic schoolmen forced the two sides to modify the content of their curricula. After a decade of violence in the 1840s, both sides sought other ways of winning the hearts and minds of the Catholic population. Public schoolmen took measures to make their schools less sectarian. Catholic schoolmen countered with measures to make their schools more secular. Both sides were competing for the attention and loyalty of Catholic parents and their children. It was a competition that would continue well into the twentieth century.

Educational Choices

In the later decades of the nineteenth century, Catholics shifted their attention to controlling the growth and development of Catholic education from within the denomination. Catholic schoolmen realized that it was not enough to promulgate decrees requiring Catholics to send their children to parish schools. Catholic parents faced a variety of educational choices and their responses were determined largely by their perceptions of the values and dangers of common schooling. A significant percentage of Catholic parentsperhaps a majorityhad relatively few qualms about public education. In fact, these parents saw the public school as the best means of insuring the future prosperity of their children in American society.

A second group of parents could not quite accept the idea of a curriculum totally devoid of religious instruction, but they were not willing to abandon the goals of public education. Their choice was to build formal working relationships with local school boards that provided for publicly supported secular institutions taught by Catholic teachers in parish-owned classrooms; religion was an after-school activity.

A third group of parents spurned formal relationships with public school boards, but nevertheless adapted many of the fundamental elements of the public school curriculum for use in parish classrooms. The result was the prototype for the Catholic parochial school that came to dominate the educational landscape in the twentieth century.

A fourth group of parents, most of whom were immigrants from Europe, not only spurned the public schools, but also established parish schools that emphasized native culture, language, and religion. The ethnic Catholic school was a powerful force within the Catholic Church well into the twentieth century. The movement ended abruptly, however, with the animosity toward all things foreign during World War I.

The style and substance of Catholic parochial education varied from region to region, diocese to diocese, and even from parish to parish across the United States during the last half of the nineteenth century and even into the first decade of the twentieth century. Bishops and pastors could not force Catholic parents to send their children to parish schools. State legislatures could not mandate public control over parochial institutions. Both sides learned that decisions on the education of Catholic children would be a family affair.

A Search for Order

At the turn of the twentieth century, American Catholic education remained a chaotic patchwork of school experiments held together by a common belief in the value of daily Catholic moral instruction as part of the educational process. Out of this chaos came a search for order during the years from 1900 to 1950. This search was evident in the movement within individual dioceses to establish school boards and appoint superintendents to provide greater uniformity in Catholic schooling from one parish to the next. The search was also evident in the establishment of the Catholic Educational Association in 1903 and the National Catholic Welfare Conference in 1918, two organizations that brought order to Catholic education on the national level.

The Catholic response to teacher preparation was a case study of the pressures on parochial education in the twentieth century. If parochial education was to survive, it had to compete with public education on its own terms. To do so meant that Catholic leaders had to better prepare women religious and other teachers for the classroom. Nevertheless, women religious never received all the teacher training they needed. At its core, Catholic teacher preparation was a combination of on-the-job training and summer school instruction.

The leadership role played by women religious in parochial education should not be underestimated. In fact, it would not be difficult to make the case that sister-teachers were the single most important element in the Catholic educational establishment both in the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. Training was only a small part of their commitment to Catholic children.

A Generation of Crisis

The years from 1950 to 1990 were a generation of crisis in Catholic education. First, there was the crisis of growth in the 1950s when demand for parochial education (due to the increase in the school-age population during the Baby Boom) far outstripped the available space. Then came the crisis of confidence during the social upheaval of the 1960s when Catholic parents asked themselves if parochial schools were necessary. Self-doubt in the 1960s was followed by the crisis of decline in the 1970s when devoted pastors and parents asked themselves if Catholic schools would survive. Although the answer by the end of the decade was an unequivocal yes, it was unclear who would pay the high cost of sustaining these schools. In fact, the economic burden of parochial education would be the predominant issue of parochial schooling in the 1980s.

The 1980s were years of uncertainty. Once a haven of white immigrant children who were making the transition from Europe to America, the Catholic schools of the 1980s had become visible symbols of the commitment of some parentsboth Catholic and non-Catholicto the education of their children. To be sure, many Catholic parishes had closed their schools in the previous three decades and other parishes were unwilling to open new schools. But just as important were the many parishes in the inner cities as well as in the affluent suburbs that made great sacrifices to sustain their schools.

An Uncertain Future

The future of American Catholic parochial education is uncertain. In the 1960s, there were more than5.7 million children enrolled in Catholic elementary schools, but by 2001 the enrollment had slipped to less than 2.6 million, a plunge of 54 percent. Even though the rate of decline had abated, it is not likely that Catholic education will ever see the strength of numbers it had at the middle of the twentieth century.

Why did Catholic parents abandon their schools over the last thirty years of the twentieth century? The answer is complex, intermingled with changing social values, changes in family structure, changes in the forms and content of public education, and the rising cost of private education relative to other living expenses. All these factors contributed to the decline of parochial education during the years from 1970 to 2000.

The beginning of the decline of Catholic parochial education can be traced to the drastic drop in religious vocations in the late 1960s. For more than a century, orders of priests and nuns staffed Catholic classrooms at minimal cost. However, in the years after the end of the Second Vatican Council in 1965, tens of thousands of these men and women abandoned their religious vows, and many others shifted to different ministries, forcing parish pastors and principals to hire lay teachers and pay them a living wage. Many school administrators found this task to be economically unfeasible and closed their schools.

A second factor was the changing structure of the American family. Where once the typical American Catholic family consisted of two parents and a gaggle of kids, the new American Catholic family was often a single parent with one or two children. Even in two-parent households, both parents worked and were in need of day-care facilities and after-school programs. Catholic families no longer had the time or energy to contribute to the operation and maintenance of a private parish school.

Related to the change in the structure of the typical Catholic family over the past thirty years has been a correlate change in American values. In such a consumer-oriented culture, Catholic parents found that they have no money left to pay parochial school tuition, let alone the resources needed to build a new school.

Another factor was the changing nature of public education. As late as the 1950s, public schools taught a form of nonsectarian Protestantism as part of the curriculum. Catholics in those areas and even in the big cities did not always feel welcome. But a 1961 decision by the Supreme Court stripped all public schools of any references to religion. Students of all faiths were treated equally.

Catholic parents were also attracted to public schools by the quality of the facilities, teachers, and courses. The principal concern of many parentsCatholic as well as non-Catholicwas the future careers and economic security of their children. Unlike their parents and grandparents, Catholic parents in the late twentieth century did not tend to value the spiritual development of their children as highly as their career development.

Catholic Schools and the Courts

There are also a sizable number of parents and educatorsboth Catholic and non-Catholicwho believe that they are being deprived of the right to fairly choose between public and private schools. At the turn of the twenty-first century, these "school choice" advocates have petitioned states legislatures and even the U.S. Congress to provide tuition tax credits and vouchers that would allow parents to make a fair choice between public and private schools. Legislatures in Wisconsin, Arizona, Ohio, and Vermont did establish school voucher programs, but these programs quickly became entangled in court litigation. Other school aid programs have been proposed in Michigan, California, Texas, and Florida.

Not surprisingly, Catholic school advocates have been active supporters of the school choice and tax voucher movements. If found to be constitutional, such aid could be an important source of financial support for many parents who struggle to pay thousands of dollars in parish school tuition each year. In 2000 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of providing tax-supported computers and remedial instruction in Catholic schools and in June 2002 upheld the use of public money for religious school tuition. Whatever the decision, however, Catholic school advocates do not believe that the voucher issue will affect the future of Catholic education.

Catholic Schools as Models

Many of the parish schools that have survived are worthy of emulation. In a 1993 study, Catholic Schools and the Common Good, three social scientists outlined the successful hallmarks of Catholic education, qualities that have been adapted by many public schools.

Foremost among the qualities of parish-based education is decentralization. For the most part, parish schools are administered at the local level. Funding for the schools comes from the community and teachers are hired by principals without interference from school superintendents or other educational bureaucrats. Parents have a greater involvement and effectiveness in the education process because they are working single institutions in their own neighborhoods rather than a centralized bureaucracy. A second quality related to the first is the fact that parents, students, and faculty share a broad set of beliefs that give each school a moral purpose. Shared values are possible if parents, students, and faculty care about education.

Another hallmark of parochial schools worthy of emulation is size. The small size of most parish schools promotes interaction between students, parents, and staff. Because teachers serve in many different roles during the school day (disciplinarians, counselors, and friends as well as specialists in one or more academic disciplines) they become mentors and role models. The small size of most parish schools insures that parents and teachers know one another and their children well.

Finally, parish schools place a special emphasis on academics. Small size and limited resources necessarily requires administrators to concentrate on basics. The result is a student body well grounded in the mathematical and literary skills so necessary for success at future educational levels. Large schools with cafeteria-style curricula may very well meet short-term demands for relevant instruction, but there is little evidence that courses in industrial management and family living are as valuable as literacy and mathematical skills in a constantly changing society.

The parents of the children who are educated in these schools will determine the future of Catholic parochial education in the United States. More than two centuries ago, the parents and pastor of St. Mary's Parish in Philadelphia established the first American parochial school. As long as there are parents and pastors interested in parochial education, these schools will survive. Even though American Catholic parochial education is unlikely to attain the position of influence it had in the mid-twentieth century, parish schools will remain important education laboratories for some time to come.

See also: Elementary Education, subentry on History of; Jewish Education, United States; National Catholic Educational Association; Private Schooling; Protestant School Systems; Secondary Education,, subentry on History of.


Buetow, Harold A. 1988. The Catholic School: Its Roots, Identity, and Future. New York: Crossroad.

Bryk, Anthony S.; Lee, Valerie E.; and Holland, Peter B. 1993. Catholic Schools and the Common Good. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Dolan, Jay P. 1985. The American Catholic Experience: From Colonial Times to the Present. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Dolan, Jay P., et al. 1989. Transforming Parish Ministry: The Changing Roles of Catholic Clergy, Laity, and Women Religious. New York: Crossroad.

Perko, Michael F., ed. 1988. Enlightening the Next Generation: Catholics and their Schools, 18301980. New York: Garland.

Walch, Timothy. 1996. Parish School: American Catholic Parochial Education from Colonial Times to the Present. New York: Crossroad.

Youniss, James; Convey, John; and McLellan, Jeffrey, eds. 2000. The Catholic Character of Catholic Schools. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

Youniss, James, and Convey, John, eds. 2000. Catholic Schools at the Crossroads. New York: Teachers College Press.

Timothy Walch

About this article

Catholic Schools

Updated About content Print Article