This week we celebrate National Catholic Schools Week. I would like to take a look, at not so much our Catholic Schools, but why, who, how our Catholic Schools were started here in the United States. The American Catholic Church created its own style of Catholic school system as a response to the felt need to protect itself and its people from the cultural animosity they felt in the America of the 1800-1900’s.
The bishops of the 19th century were aware of the great pressure that new immigrants coming from Catholic countries felt, striving to practice and teach the Catholic faith to their children. Therefore, they sought to insulate them from the pressures of American society. The great architect of the Catholic school system was Bishop John Hughes, the first archbishop of New York, 1842-1864. Archbishop Hughes took on the Public School Society of New York and demanded that they deal more sensitively with the immigrants and not force/coerce Catholic children to adopt the mainstream non- Catholic religions of the American society. He got nowhere by the authorities and thus decided to start a parallel school system in which the faith would be preserved. That system survives to this day.
As bishops meet together in councils throughout each country, the council of Baltimore in 1884 decreed that every parish had to have a school and that the school should be the first building built in any parish. At the same time the bishops were involved in the construction of what has been called the “empire of charity”: a network of social and educational institutions that were thought to be necessary to maintain the faith in a hostile cultural environment. The staffing for the schools, hospitals and orphanages came from huge numbers of vocations to religious congregations of sisters and from European missionaries. Thus the schools as well as all “church” institutions became very diverse. They reflected linguistically and culturally the neighborhoods in which they were located and which religious order staffed that institution.
The bishops sought to keep the Catholic Church together by catering to the different needs of their people. German immigrants differed in their needs from the Irish immigrants, etc. Money was always a major concern, since the immigrants brought very little with them to America other than their families and their faith.
In every immigrant neighborhood: family, parish, school and hospital all believed the same things. The lessons that were
taught around the dinner table were reinforced on Sunday from the pulpit, in the classroom during the week and on the streets of the neighborhood. The product was an extraordinary achievement, a school system that was owned by the people who paid for it voluntarily and who believed that its central proposition was the passing on of the faith. Faith and character were stressed in all that was/is done in the Catholic schools. (to be continued)