Why do Catholic schools exist? Print E-mail
Our Catholic Schools

Next to the public schools, Catholic schools form the largest school system in America, enrolling over 1.8 million students in over 6,300 schools nationwide.

In the Diocese of Madison, 40 percent of our parishes sponsor a Catholic grade school. Catholic schools are an apostolate of the Church and have had a significant impact on our nation, our diocese, and our parishes, yet I often hear people wonder why we have Catholic schools. Why do Catholic schools exist?

Existed before nation

Historically, Catholic schools existed in America long before our nation did. They were first established in the south and west by Spanish missionaries in the 16th century. French missionaries later followed suit in the northeast and along the Great Lakes.

While the French and Spanish colonized the far north, south, and western parts of the country, the eastern seaboard was colonized by England. The French and Spanish settlements were generally founded by Catholics, while the English colonies were generally founded by Protestants.

England, like most European nations of the time, had been Catholic. However, it split with the Catholic Church early when King Henry VIII founded the Church of England and declared himself its head. After this, practicing any other religion was considered an act of treason punishable by death.

Sought freedom

Religious persecution ran rampant in England. Religious fervor ran high. Religious tolerance ran low. The persecuted who sought freedom looked to new settlements and the promise of freedom in America.

Though many settlers sought religious freedom, religious tolerance was uncommon. Only two English colonies originally adopted policies of tolerance: Maryland, founded by Lord Baltimore, a Catholic, and Pennsylvania, founded by William Penn, a Quaker.

Maryland initially practiced a policy of religious tolerance. The fact that it was Catholic, however, was seen by many English leaders as a threat, since Catholics were considered to be traitors to England.

In 1654, Protestants overthrew Maryland’s government and passed a law denying any protection of laws to Catholics and making it illegal to practice the Catholic faith.

Following the Revolutionary War, pressures on Catholics eased in many states. After the adoption of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights (1789), which guarantees freedom of religion, several states repealed anti-Catholic legislation.

While a decidedly anti-Catholic mood still existed, the birth of our nation presented new freedom and opportunities for Catholic Americans.

First seminary, schools

The first Catholic seminary, St. Mary’s, was founded in Baltimore by the Sulpician Fathers in 1791.

Seventeen years later, Elizabeth Ann Seton arrived at St. Mary’s. Being a convert to Catholicism and having experienced the sting of religious persecution in her native New York, she dreamt of opening a school where Catholics could openly practice and be instructed in their faith.

The school flourished, and in 1810, Mrs. Seton founded a second school, the Academy of St. Joseph in Emmitsburg. Mrs. Seton then founded the Sisters of Charity. The Sisters continued to operate the two schools and, as their numbers grew, they opened more schools and orphanages in many cities, including Baltimore, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, and New York. This marked the beginning of the parochial school system in the United States.

Despite these gains, Catholic schools were still rare. Most Americans were Protestant, and anti-Catholic sentiment was common. That sentiment was intensified with the large immigration from Ireland in the 1840s.

‘Common’ schools

At the same time, the idea of the “common school” was gaining popularity. Common or “public” schools were seen as beneficial to the common good and necessary to sustain a democracy. Most importantly, the public schools would be the cauldron of the melting pot by which immigrant children would shed the ways of the old country and be assimilated into the values and culture of America.

Although we think of public schools as neutral to religion, Protestantism permeated the public schools in 19th century. The Bible was used regularly and memorization of its passages was common.

Since the nation was primarily Protestant, American values were Protestant values, and American values were taught in public schools.

Since few Catholic schools existed, Catholic families often had no choice but to send their children to public schools. This frequently resulted in conflict, as public schools used the King James Bible, recited Protestant prayers, and sang Protestant songs which rejected core Catholic beliefs. Catholic students who refused to comply risked ridicule and punishment.

Catholic schools

This situation was unacceptable to Catholic parents and bishops. As a result, the bishops at the First Plenary Council of Baltimore (1852) decreed, “Bishops are exhorted to have a Catholic school in every parish.” This was reinforced in 1866 by the Second Plenary Council of Baltimore, which decreed that a Catholic school, “. . . should be erected in every parish.”

In 1884 the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore affirmed the necessity of Catholic schools “and the obligation of pastors to establish them.”

This launched a time of building and growth in Catholic schools across the nation, resulting in the creation of the largest non-public school system in the nation.


Michael Lancaster is the superintendent of Catholic schools in the Diocese of Madison.