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A History of Catholic Schools in America

Catholic Schools Celebrate Service
Observing Catholic Schools through the years, service to others less fortunate has always been woven into the faith education of children and youth.  However, the way service was delivered has changed markedly over the past forty years of Catholic Education.  In the 50’s children ransomed pagan babies by giving their pennies to reach a $5.00 goal.  A running tally of progress was written in the corner of the blackboard along with the number saved so far in this classroom this year.  Today’s children and youth continue the practice of money collecting for various charities.  Food and clothing drives have been added along with week long trips to build homes in impoverished areas and delivering meals to shut ins.  The tradition of service in Catholic Schools is a generous one which continues to mushroom with new opportunities. 

Catholic Schools Week 2009 encourages reflection on the positive benefit our school students and faculties have been to our society.  Hopefully, this reflection will move Catholic School leadership and students to a greater understanding of Jesus’ command to serve and a renewed commitment to our baptismal call.

A Short History of Catholic Schools in America

Welcoming the Stranger
Multitudes immigrated to this country in the early 1900’s from the continents of Europe and Asia in search of a better home with great hope for a more comfortable life.  These strangers were recognized as different by their language, clothing and customs.  Who would welcome them?  Churches of all denominations put out the “welcome mat” and helped the stranger settle into neighborhoods, schools and occupations.  Catholic Schools welcomed the children of immigrants and gave them the necessary language and skills for a successful life in the new world.  The service of Catholic Schools to this generation of families continues to bless our Church and society today.

Giving from our Abundance
Potential and optimism were the characteristics of the time following World War II.  American Catholics were successful in the workplace and in society.  A life in the suburbs away from the noise and clutter of big cities was seen as success for these second generation Catholics.  Construction of new housing flourished and with it came new parishes and schools to serve the faith and education needs of a suburban population.  Life was good.  Vocations to the priesthood and religious life were at an all time high.  It seemed that everyone went to Church on Sunday and Catholic School enrollments were outstanding.  During this time parish communities developed various societies which fostered family life and faith while focusing care within the congregation.  Catholics gave of their abundance, building an exceptional school system with strength in academics, faith and tradition.

“…Whatever you did for one of these least of my mine, you did for me.”  (Mt 25:40)
Catholic Schools in the 21st century serve those experiencing abundance, the new immigrants, and those struggling in our inner cities.  All that was in our past is also in our present experience of the Catholic Church.  Catholic Schools thrive in suburban communities experiencing abundance.  Our parish communities and schools work with diligence to find appropriate ways to assist Asian and Hispanic immigrants in finding their dream of better life in America.  Concurrently Catholic Church leadership is actively seeking ways to provide the best of the Catholic experience to the struggling poor living in the heart of our cities. Coalitions between thriving suburban schools and weakened inner city schools and foundations populated with both highly successful corporations and individuals are achieving the dream of Catholic Education for the least of our brothers.

Small Start, Big Dream, a Tradition
The history of Catholic Schools in America demonstrates a remarkable success story.  The simple idea of a school for the children of parish Catholic families has become a national dream educating over 2,300,000 children and youth in 2006-07.  Twenty-five percent of these are minority students and thirteen percent are non Catholic.  In addition, one hundred ninety two (192) new Catholic Schools opened in the last five years.  The Catholic Schools of the 21st century have grasped and are living a three hundred year old dream.  As with any dream new elements have been added as greater understanding of the institutions values prompts change and improvement.  Catholic Schools must continue to ask the deeper questions about  welcoming the stranger, giving from our abundance, and acting on behalf of the least of our brothers.

Celebrate past service this Catholic Schools Week and make efforts to serve with greater depth and broader impact.  This is the week to revisit our baptismal call and hear Jesus saying to us “you did it for me.”

What Difference Does This Make?

  1. What kinds of activities does my school plan for students and families which encourage service to others?  Are children being taught that service is a way of life for followers of Jesus?  Did I participate with them and teach them the value of serving because it is the right thing to do?
  2. Over the centuries, the Catholic Church has served the global population.  Visit the websites for Catholic Charities and Catholic Relief Services.  What impact have they had in the world?
  3. What challenges are Catholic Schools facing in the years ahead?
          Within your parish community?
          In the local community?
          At the national level?
  4. Who do you think qualifies as the stranger needing to be invited into the Catholic School system? How might this happen in your parish community?
  5. Read Matthew 25:31-46.  Is the call to service as put forth in this gospel broadly accepted and practiced in your faith community?  How will believers come to a deeper understanding of their call?  What action can you take to enhance the understanding and practice of service in your parish and school?

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