Where did American Catholic schools come from?

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The story of Catholic School begins in 1634 when Maryland was founded as a Catholic refuge in the American colonies: Six years later the first Catholic school opened there. By 1692, however, Anglicanism was established as the official religion in the colony, and Catholicism largely went underground after that.

REPLICA Catholic grade-school classroom
circa mid-20th century, Jubilee Museum
and Catholic Cultural Center (Columbus, OH).
By the mid-18th century, Quaker Pennsylvania proved to be Catholic-friendly, so Jesuits opened a handful of schools for German immigrants in and around Philadelphia—near the Maryland border. As one historian notes: “Anti-Catholic laws prevented the foundation of schools virtually everywhere else.” Before the century’s end the United States was a reality, with a constitutional First Amendment guaranteeing that no law would establish or prohibit religious practice. In 1789 the Northwest Ordinance encouraged the development of schools because “religion, morality, and knowledge” were deemed good for government and happiness. That opened the door to Catholic schools but also to the expectation of government support never quite realized.

Detroit became the next hub for Catholic education when a girls’ school opened in 1804. In 1839 nonsectarian reading of the King James Bible in public schools was instituted in Massachusetts and became the norm. The bishop of Philadelphia lost the battle to include other Bible translations. After the bishop of New York failed to win public funds for his schools, U.S. bishops agreed to finance parochial schools themselves at the First Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1852. This was a significant consideration, as the country was experiencing its second big immigration wave. Whereas in 1840 a half-million U.S. Catholics had 200 schools between Baltimore and the Middle Border, between 1880 and 1920 the Catholic population jumped by a million every decade.

At the Third Plenary Council of 1884 the bishops ordered the opening of a school in every parish. Eight million Catholics required 40 communities of religious women and 11 orders of men to staff these schools. By 1947 New Jersey agreed to fund buses for non-public school children, and in the 1960s textbooks, libraries, and even teacher subsidies were available to Catholic schools in half the states. In the same decade, praying and Bible-reading in public schools were prohibited. Despite over 100 parochiaid bills launched by President Richard Nixon, not one passed the U.S. Congress.

Parochial schools have been in decline since their peak in the 1950s and 60s. Contemporary debate centers on whether their mission has already been served in delivering Catholics into the U.S. mainstream.

On instructing children: Deuteronomy 6:4-9, 20-25; Psalm 119; Sirach 6:18-37

• "Grounding Hope in Uncertain Times: Mission and Catholic Schools" by Therese D'Orsa and Jim D'Orsa in Compass: A Review of Topical Theology, Winter 2011

Parish School: American Catholic Parochial Education from Colonial Times to the Present by Timothy Walch (NCEA, 2003)
Catholic Schools and the Common Good
by Anthony S. Bryk, Valerie E. Lee, and Peter B. Holland (Harvard University Press, 1993)

Photo credit: By Nheyob, via Wikimedia Commons.

Reprinted with permission from PrepareTheWord.com. ©TrueQuest Communications.

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