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Colonial era


Spanish colonies

In 1606, Spanish Franciscan missionaries established a school in what is now St. Augustine, Florida "to teach children Christian doctrine, reading and writing," . Further north and a bit later, Jesuits instructed Native American students such as Kateri Tekakwitha, who became a Catholic and taught Indian children in a Christian settlement near Montreal.

In the 1770's, Junipero Serra and his Franciscans established the California mission system, whose ministry included the education of Native Americans in farming, Christian belief, skilled crafts, and other fields.

French colonies

In New Orleans, the Franciscans opened a school for boys in 1718. In 1727, the Ursulines opened the Ursuline Academy, a school for girls.

English colonies

Catholicism was introduced to the English colonies with the founding of the Province of Maryland by Jesuit settlers from England in 1634.[1] Maryland was one of the few regions among the English colonies in North America that was predominantly Catholic.

However, the 1646 defeat of the Royalists in the English Civil War led to stringent laws against Catholic education and the extradition of known Jesuits from the colony, including Andrew White, and the destruction of their school at Calverton Manor.[2] During the greater part of the Maryland colonial period, Jesuits continued to conduct Catholic schools clandestinely.

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) flavor. Even in Catholic-founded Maryland, Catholics were a minority, although with a bit more freedom. 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.

American revolution

The American Revolution brought revolutionary changes, with the participation in the war by such patriots as Charles, Daniel and John Carroll helping to erode anti-Catholic bigotry. In 1782, Catholics in Philadelphia opened St. Mary's School, which is considered to have been 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.

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.

Founding of Georgetown University

It was not until after the American Revolution in 1776 that long-term plans to establish a permanent Catholic institution for education in America were realized.[3]

Statue of John Carroll in the center of campus

Following the revolution, Pope Pius VI appointed John Carroll of Maryland, a former Jesuit, as the first head of the Catholic Church in America, although the papal suppression of the Jesuit order was still in effect. Carroll orchestrated the early development of a new university; instruction at the school began on November 22, 1791 with future Congressman William Gaston as its first student.[4]

In its early years, Georgetown College suffered from considerable financial strain, relying on private sources of funding and the limited profits from local Jesuit-owned lands.[5] The Maryland Society of Jesus was restored in 1805 and given supervision of the school, which bolstered confidence in the college.[6] The United States Congress issued Georgetown the first federal university charter in 1815, which allowed it to confer degrees. The college's first two graduates were awarded the degree of bachelor of arts two years later in 1817.[7]

19th century

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.

American frontier

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.

Mother Mary Elizabeth

Elizabeth Lange (later Mother Mary Elizabeth) established a school in Baltimore for poor children. In 1831, she founded the Oblate Sisters of Providence, an order which devoted themselves to African-American education at a time when slavery was still in existence in Southern states.

Creation of parochial schools

Famous 1876 editorial cartoon by Thomas Nast showing bishops as crocodiles attacking public schools, with the connivance of Irish Catholic politicians

Catholic parochial schools were instituted in the United States as a reaction against a growing publicly-funded school system that was essentially Protestant. In 1839 and 1840, the American Bible Society pledged that "the Bible would be read in every classroom in the nation". In what was then a predominantly Protestant country, this was generally understood to be the King James Version of the Scriptures.

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. However, such successes sparked a bigoted backlash, fomented by such groups as the Know-Nothing Party, 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 directive that all Catholic parishes open schools within two years.

Blaine amendments

In 1875, President Grant, whose sympathies for the Know-Nothing party were well-known, called for a Constitutional amendment that would mandate free public schools and prohibit the use of public funds for "sectarian" schools. It was clear that Grant’s motivation was rooted in his anti-Catholicism, fearing a future with "patriotism and intelligence on one side and superstition, ambition and greed on the other" which he identified with the Catholic Church. Grant called for public schools that would be "unmixed with atheistic, pagan or sectarian teaching."

Senator James G. Blaine of Maine had proposed such an amendment to the Constitution in 1874. The amendment was defeated in 1875 but would be used as a model for so-called "Blaine Amendments" incorporated into 34 state constitutions over the next three decades. These amendments prohibited the use of public funds to fund parochial schools and are still in effect today although a 2002 Supreme Court ruling partially vitiated these amendments. As of March 2009, no state school system had changed its laws to allow state funds to be used for this purpose.[8]

The Catholic University of America

The proposal to create a national Catholic university in America reflected the rising size and influence of the nation’s Catholic population and also an ambitious vision of the Church’s role in American life during the 19th century.

In 1882 Bishop John Lancaster Spalding went to Rome to obtain Pope Leo XIII's support for the University and persuaded family friend Mary Gwendoline Caldwell to pledge $300,000 to establish it. On March 7, 1889, the Pope issued the encyclical Magni Nobis, granting the university its charter and establishing its mission as the instruction of Catholicism and human nature together at the graduate level. By developing new leaders and new knowledge, the University would strengthen and enrich Catholicism in the United States.[9]

Many of the founders of the CUA held a vision that included both a sense of the Church’s special role in United States and also a conviction that scientific and humanistic research, informed by the Faith, would only strengthen the Church. They sought to develop an institution like a national university that would promote the Faith in a context of religious freedom, spiritual pluralism, and intellectual rigor.

When the University first opened for classes in the fall of 1888, the curriculum consisted of lectures in mental and moral philosophy, English literature, the Sacred Scriptures, and the various branches of theology. At the end of the second term, lectures on canon law were added and the first students were graduated in 1889. In 1904, an undergraduate program was added and it quickly established a reputation for excellence.[10]

20th century

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, there were only about 100 Catholic high schools, but by 1920 more than 1,500 were in operation. For more than two generations, enrollment continued to climb.

The Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities was founded in 1899, In 1904, Catholic educators formed an organization to coordinate their efforts on a national scale: the Catholic Educational Association which later changed its name to the National Catholic Educational Association.

Supreme Court upholds parochial schools

In 1922, the voters of Oregon passed an initiative amending Oregon Law Section 5259, the Compulsory Education Act. The law unofficially became known as the Oregon School Law. The citizens' initiative was primarily aimed at eliminating parochial schools, including Catholic schools.[11] The law caused outraged Catholics to organize locally and nationally for the right to send their children to Catholic schools. In Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925), the United States Supreme Court declared the Oregon's Compulsory Education Act unconstitutional in a ruling that that has been called "the Magna Carta of the parochial school system."


By the mid-1960's, enrollment in Catholic parochial schools had reached an all-time high of 4.5 million elementary school pupils, with about 1 million students in Catholic high schools.


The United States had 7,498 Catholic schools in 2006-07, including 6,288 elementary schools and 1,210 secondary schools. In total there were 2,320,651 students, including 1,682,412 students in the elementary/middle schools and 638,239 in high schools.[12] Enrollment in the nation’s Catholic schools has steadily dropped to less than half of its peak at five million students 40 years ago, The New York Times reported in early 2009. At its peak in 1965, the number of U.S. parochial schools was more than 12,000, and roughly half of all Catholic children in America attended Catholic elementary schools, according to the National Catholic Educational Association. The same share in 2009 is about 15 percent. Among Latinos, the fastest-growing church group — soon to comprise a majority of Catholics in the United States — it is three percent. The article also reported on "dozens of local efforts" to turn the tide, including by the Archdiocese of Chicago and Washington, D.C. and dioceses in Memphis and Wichita, Kansas, as well as in the New York City metro area. [13]

Although the strong commitment by church and lay leaders alike to Catholic education remains constant, changing demographics have had a major impact on enrollment. The waiting list for Catholic schools is over 40 per cent. One challenge is there are many school buildings in urban areas without a nearby Catholic population to support them. On the other hand, there are thousands of potential students in suburban areas where schools have yet to be built.

See also


  1. ^ Fitzpatrick, Edward A. (January 1936). "Miniatures of Georgetown, 1634 to 1934". The Journal of Higher Education 7 (1): 56–57. doi:10.2307/1974310. Retrieved 2007-11-14. 
  2. ^ Nevils, William Coleman (1934). Miniatures of Georgetown: Tercentennial Causeries. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press. pp. 1–25. 
  3. ^ Devitt, E.I. (1909). "Georgetown University". Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved 2007-07-10. 
  4. ^ "William Gaston and Georgetown". Bicentennial Exhibit. Georgetown University. November 11, 2000. Retrieved 2007-07-03. 
  5. ^ O'Neill, Paul R.; Paul K. Williams (2003). Georgetown University. Arcadia. pp. 12, 30–39, 54, 62. ISBN 0-7385-1509-4. 
  6. ^ Curran, Robert Emmett (July 7, 2007). "Georgetown: A Brief History". Undergraduate Bulletin. Georgetown University. Retrieved 2007-08-27. 
  7. ^ "The Federal Charter". About Georgetown. Archived from the original on January 3, 2008. Retrieved 2007-03-06. 
  8. ^ Bush, Jeb (March 4, 2009). NO:Choice forces educators to improve. The Atlanta Constitution-Journal. 
  9. ^ The founding, and Spalding's role, are covered in A Catholic University; The Zeal of a Few Prelates Rewarded, N.Y. Times, June 15, 1885, at 5. Spalding was quoted: "Let there be, then, an American Catholic University, where our young men, in the atmosphere of faith and purity, of high thinking and plain living, shall become more intimately conscious of the truth of their religion and of the genius of their country, where they shall learn the repose and dignity which belong to their ancient Catholic descent, and yet not lose the fire which glows in the blood of a new people...."
  10. ^ The president of the first undergraduate class was Frank Kuntz, whose memoir of that period was published by the University press. Frank Kuntz, Undergraduate Days: 1904-1908 (CUA 1958). The University gives an annual award named for Kuntz.[1]
  11. ^ Howard, J. Paul. "Cross-Border Reflections, Parents’ Right to Direct Their Childrens’ Education Under the U.S. and Canadian Constitutions", Education Canada, v41 n2 p36-37 Sum 2001.
  12. ^ Annual Data Report - National Catholic Educational Association
  13. ^ "For Catholic Schools, Crisis and Catharsis" by Paul Vitello and Winnie Hu The New York Times January 18, 2009 p. A29 NY edition. Retrieved 1-17-09.


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