Their history in America predates the American Revolution, but they are now struggling, as this article from National Affairs reports.
“To imagine what America would look like without Catholic schools, it is useful to consider that our republic has never been without them — for these schools long pre-date the American founding.
“In 1606, in what is now St. Augustine, Florida, the Franciscan Order founded the first Catholic school on what would eventually become American shores, in order “to teach children Christian doctrine, reading, and writing.” At first, expansion was slow: As education historians Thomas Hunt and James Carper note, in the 1600s and 1700s, schooling in America was unsystematic, unregulated, and discontinuous; though some colonies required children to be educated, families and churches developed schools organically, and those schools reflected the preferences and traditions particular to their communities.
“Catholic religious orders took the lead in developing secondary schools. In 1677, Jesuits founded a preparatory school for boys in Newtown, Maryland; their second was established in Bohemia Manor, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, in the 1740s. The Sisters of Saint Ursula founded the Ursuline Academy for girls in largely Catholic New Orleans in 1727.
“In the early 1800s, parochial schools — those affiliated with parishes — emerged and became the foundation for Catholic elementary schools. During this time, however, Catholics comprised only about 3% of America’s population. Though the number of Catholics in the United States grew with the Louisiana Purchase, the nation and its schools were still overwhelmingly Protestant. Moreover, the Church in the United States was still small and organizationally primitive, with few priests and churches and even fewer resources. So Catholics operated a relatively small number of schools, mostly in Maryland and Pennsylvania, states with traditions of religious toleration.
“In the first decades of the 19th century, the few Catholic schools that did exist often received public support, typically from local governments. But concerns over government aid to religious institutions, as well as growing anti-immigrant sentiment, brought these arrangements to an end. They also played a part in the emergence of government-funded “common schools,” the predecessors of today’s public-school system. Designed to counter what some saw as objectionable influences — immigration, religious and ethnic diversification, and urbanization — and to provide a standard education to all students, common schools aimed to advance both education and assimilation. They grew rapidly and enrolled significant numbers of the nation’s children; consequently, in the decades before the Civil War, there were still only about 200 Catholic schools nationwide.
“But the waves of immigrants that swept to America’s shores in the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th would have major implications for American education, particularly Catholic schools. Urban public-school systems, still in their formative years, quickly became overwhelmed by the massive influx of students. In 1881, New York had to refuse admission to nearly 10,000 children because the city lacked classroom space; in Chicago in 1886, had all students reported for school as required, there would have been room for only one-third of them.
“But it wasn’t merely that additional schools were needed; it was that new schools willing and able to serve these particular young Americans were needed. Nearly all of the approximately 17 million immigrants who entered the United States between 1850 and 1900 came from Europe, and many from predominantly Catholic countries like Italy and Ireland. By the turn of the 20th century, America had become 16% Catholic.
“During this era, anti-immigrant bigotry spread and intensified and, in some places, received the government’s imprimatur. Nebraska and Hawaii passed legislation restricting schools’ ability to teach foreign languages. Illinois and Wisconsin enacted laws banning any education in foreign languages, thus effectively dismantling the states’ German Catholic and Lutheran parochial schools. Oregon passed laws requiring students to attend public schools — a direct assault on the right of families, Catholic or otherwise, to educate their children as they saw fit. And at the federal level, former speaker of the House James G. Blaine introduced a constitutional amendment in 1875 that would have strictly forbidden any government funding of schools run by “any religious sect.” The Maine congressman’s proposal passed overwhelmingly in the House — by a vote of 180 to seven — but was defeated narrowly in the Senate. Within 15 years, however, 29 states had “Blaine Amendments” in their own constitutions.
“As government officials were closing off alternatives to public education, they were also giving Catholic families good reason to want to distance themselves from government-run schools. Non-denominational Protestantism was a cornerstone of many public schools; Bible-reading was often mandatory (usually from a Protestant Bible). Some textbooks even contained anti-Catholic material.
“Across the nation, these developments convinced many Catholics that their sons and daughters required schools of their own. Education historian Diane Ravitch notes that New York City’s Catholic clergy moved to protect children from “Protestant propaganda” by discouraging them from attending the city’s public schools. In 1884, at the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore, bishops required all parishes to establish schools and required all Catholic parents to have their children attend them.”