An American Catholic Education

The opportunity to receive an education through Catholic-operated educational facilities is a fact that may be taken for granted in the 21st century. However, the proliferation of such schools is a relatively recent concept, and one that is not without controversy. Parochial schools began to develop during the mid-19th century mainly in reaction to the forced usage of Protestant materials in public schools. These schools had to fight for their right to exist following the Civil War and up through the 1920s, as Nativist groups in the 19th century and the Ku Klux Klan in the 20th century were among those that attempted to prevent their opening. It would not be until a 1925 Supreme Court decision overturning an Oregon compulsory school law that Catholic schools were allowed to operate without fear of intervention.

-While the advent of parochial schools is the focus here, it is worth noting that the first Catholic college in the United States was established by Bishop John Carroll in 1789 in what was then Georgetown, Maryland (now a neighborhood in Washington, D.C.). The school now exists as Georgetown University. This is the proposal for the college written by Carroll.

-In 1809, Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton (later St. Elizabeth Ann Seton) moved to Emmittsburg, Maryland, from Baltimore to begin a school for girls named Saint Joseph's Academy and Free School. Seton would remain a proponent of parochial schools for the remainder of her life. In this letter to Filippo Filicchi, she presents her plans for the school and religious community around it. 

-Catholics colleges for men had increased by 1842, and Canon Josef Salzbacher of Vienna wrote about his observations of the colleges while he was in the United States as part of general overview of the Catholic Church here. Salzbacher had originally come to investigate claims that the American Church had neglected German immigrants.

-An incident in 1859 may have been one of the reasons for the parochial movement occurred in Boston when a number of students at the Eliot School left the school refusing to recite the Ten Commandments from the Protestant King James Bible. One of the students was beaten severely for his refusal. 

-The First and Second Plenary Councils of Baltimore in 1852 and 1866, respectively, had called for Catholic parents to place their children in parochial schools. Observing that many of these children were still in public schools, the Congregation de Propaganda Fide strongly reiterated these concerns in the instructions presented here in 1875.

-In 1875, President Ulysses S. Grant called for an amendment to the Constitution that would mandate free public education and prohibit the use of public funds to support religious schools. Rep. James G. Blaine of Maine submitted just such an amendment to the House in in 1876, which had Catholic institutions as its main target. The amendment passed the House, but was defeated in the Senate; however, several states would go on to add versions of this amendment to their individual constitutions.

-The Blaine Amendment would not be the last time that parochial schools would be attacked. The Ku Klux Klan, eager to spread anti-Catholic hatred, came to Oregon in the 1920s and was instrumental in the passage of the state's Compulsory Education Law. This law mandated that all Oregon school children ages 8-16 were to attend public school, essentially eliminating private (including parochial) schools.

-Oregon Catholics would not let the Compulsory Education Law go unchallenged. With assistance from the National Catholic Welfare Council, the Society of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, an order of Catholic Women Religious, who ran several schools in Oregon, was granted an injunction against the implementation of the law in 1924 by the Oregon District Court. Governor Walter Pierce, a supporter of the law who was endorsed by the KKK, appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1925. In Pierce vs. Society of Sisters, the Court overturned the law. (For more information on the Oregon school battle, see the exhibit Catholic Patriotism on Trial: The Oregon School Case).

-In another battle over school funding, President John F. Kennedy proposed a multi-billion federal aid program for public schools, but specifically left out private and parochial schools. Numerous Catholic leaders protested the program on the grounds that it did not aid parochial schools, and a group of attroneys from the Archdiocese of Washington addressed the issue in this statement from April 1961. Kennedy's program was eventually defeated, with the President signing a less substantial bill later in the year.