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U.S. Catholic Schools

Washington Cathedral

Although Catholic schools today make up the largest non-public school system in the country, the history of Catholic schools in the United States is actually older than the United States itself. Because of Spanish interest in "God, Gold, and Glory" missionaries and priests accompanied explorers on their travel in the continent as early as the mid-16th century and their French counterparts followed closely behind. While there is no record of these earlier exploits, Catholic education in America already had a strong foothold in North America by the time the first official Catholic school entered the scene in 1606.

Founded by the Franciscan order in present-day St. Augustine, FL, from this small seed a vibrant garden would sprout. Unfortunately, their hopes would not take root until after the Revolution. Even though English Catholics, seeking religious liberty from Anglican England, founded Maryland as a Catholic colony in 1634, the number of Catholic schools in America remained small. Of these, Maryland was a natural central hub activity but Catholics (if not their schools) could be found in almost all of the colonies on the eve of the Revolution.

Following the Revolution, however, Catholic education began in earnest. In fact, just a few years after the end of the war, in 1789, the first true Catholic college in the United States was founded at Georgetown in present-day Washington DC. Two years later the ratification of the Bill of Rights (and its First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of religion) helped Catholics further cement their place in the new country. Over the next few decades, Catholic schools would be established in Maryland, Kentucky, New Jersey and elsewhere. Meanwhile, in Spanish-controlled California, Catholic missions were laying the foundations of Catholic education in what would become the most populous state in the Union.

Mass immigration from Catholic Ireland in the mid-1800s saw an increased in demand for religious education and many private Catholic schools were founded during this period as an answer to the Protestant education that then dominated the nation’s public schools. In fact, the First Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1852 specifically urged every Catholic parish in the country to establish its own school for just such a reason. In answer to this call, scores of schools were established throughout the country.

As a result of efforts like these, there were an estimated 3,500 Catholic schools the United States reaching all age groups in 1900 but by 1920 more than 6,551 schools served some 1.7 million elementary-age students alone. Growth was explosive throughout the 20th Century and the number of schools in communities throughout the country continued to climb. The Baby Boom following the end of the Second World War further increased enrollment. By the mid-1960's, 4.5 million elementary school students were enrolled in private Catholic schools in the United States. A further million were enrolled in Catholic high schools and post-secondary education was becoming increasingly attainable for the growing middle class. Thus, in response to the needs of the faithful for a spiritual college education, the number of Catholic colleges and universities in the United States continued to grow. A number of notable schools, such as Felician College, can trace their origins to this period where it was found in 1942 by Felician Sisters. Located in New Jersey, Felician College’s purpose is to “promote a love for learning, a desire for God, self knowledge, service to others, and respect for all creation.”

Although enrollment has declined from its peak in the 1960s, Catholic schools in the United States continue to be a dominant part of the education system and at the dawn of the 21st Century a new wave of international students has begun to add its distinctive character to the system. Catholics from abroad, and other international students with varied backgrounds, are coming to the United States to further their studies in disciplines are varied as medicine, business and more. Thus it seems that Catholic education in America will continue to be international in nature as ever.

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