Parochial Schools

Parochial schools belong to the complex expectations about the education of children in a pluralistic American society. In the United States the line between parental and state authority over education has long been at issue, and Americans have tenaciously clung to the conviction that schooling has a profound influence upon democracy and national unity.

Parochial Education through the Nineteenth Century

Catholics followed the same patchwork approach to education that Protestants adopted in colonial and early-nineteenth-century America. The large majority of boys and girls learned the fundamentals and religion in parish schools supported by parishioners' donations, clergy's services, and parents' small fees. Academies taught by nuns or laywomen offered the "refinements" to daughters of wealthier Catholics in cities. The first opened in New Orleans in 1727. Men's colleges for boys as young as eight and as old as twenty-four were operated by clerics; with Georgetown as the early model, the fourteen established by 1830 often combined prep school, college, and seminary under one roof.

The flood of Catholic immigrants from Ireland and Germany gave new immediacy and shape to parochial education in the 1840s. Catholics scrambled to provide ethnic parishes with schools and to find sister-teachers who spoke the parents' language and could instruct in lessons of the old world and new. Urban middle and upper classes began to set their children apart by expanding Catholic school opportunities; fifty-six new Catholic secondary schools for girls opened in the decade of the 1840s. At this same time, Protestant American reformers were placing new emphasis on education as the means to transmit democratic values. Following the lead of HORACE MANN of Massachusetts, other educators began to develop free tax-funded schools, usually Protestant-controlled and undergirded by readings from the Protestants' King James Bible. Parish and public schools went up within the same few blocks while bricks and mortar drained scarce dollars. Education became a lightning rod for midcentury ethnic and religious tensions once matters of faith were wrapped up in matters of money.

Nativists like the Know Nothing party exploited Protestant fears that a foreign, authoritarian pope would control Catholic schools to the detriment of democracy. Catholics countered that their taxes went to public schools where hostile teachers used the Protestant rather than Catholic Bible and could not transmit parents' language or cultural heritage. This was not what they expected from the freedoms America promised. New York City's Bishop John Hughes ignited the "school wars" in 1840 when he rallied Catholics to petition for tax support of parochial schools. For over a decade, similar efforts disrupted many northern and midwestern communities. Catholics failed to win a share of tax revenues but persevered on their separate course, with some parents and dioceses more willing or able to support parochial education. Boston and the New England region lagged behind New York, where nearly 20 percent of all children attending school were in parochial schools; in Detroit, Catholic schools accounted for nearly 40 percent of total enrollment. A proliferation of parish schools took form according to local circumstances, quality of sister-teachers, and parents' preferences; Irish nuns for Irish children, German nuns for Germans. Catholic publishers printed textbooks for religious education and conscientious nuns insisted upon additional books and lessons equal to the best of the public schools.

When the American bishops met in 1884 for the Third Plenary Council, parochial education was a cornerstone of their discussion and underscored their disagreement. "Americanists" wanted schools planted within the American culture. "Pluralists" argued for ethnic schools and opposed any form of public control. Debate raged for the next fifteen years. The disparate array of parish schools, Catholic boys' prep schools, and convent boarding schools continued to defy any bishop's ambition for an orderly system despite Protestants' belief that Catholic schools followed papal dictates.

When Catholic immigrants from central and southern Europe surged into America's industrial centers between the 1890s and 1920s, the model of ethnic parish schools was in place. Polish pupils of diverse ages crowded parish elementary schools taught by newly developed congregations of Polish-American nuns using textbooks written for them in Polish. Second- and third-generation immigrants distanced themselves in new middle-class parishes boasting high schools; their children studied Greek, Latin, and chemistry with college-educated nuns and priests.

Twentieth Century

Ambitions for an American melting pot and "100 percent Americanism" promoted renewed attacks on parochial schools after World War I. In several states ballot proposals aimed to require public school attendance. The 1925 Supreme Court ruling PIERCE V. SOCIETY OF SISTERS affirmed parents' right to select nonpublic schools. Catholics, meanwhile, embraced external accreditation standards to validate their schools. By the mid-1960s, 12 percent of all elementary-age children attended parochial schools.

Throughout the remainder of the twentieth century, parochial education adapted to new realities inside and outside the Catholic church. Upward mobility, a shrinking pool of teachers from religious congregations, and changing attitudes about public schools led some schools to close and others to open or expand. The historical controversy about the place of nonpublic, church-related schooling in a democratic America continues. Parochial schools remain also, justifiably regarded as the single most impressive accomplishment of America's Catholic immigrants.

See also: Catholicism; Education, United States; Private and Independent Schools; Sunday School.


Dolan, Jay P. 1985. The American Catholic Experience: A History from Colonial Times to the Present. Garden City, NJ: Doubleday, 1985.

Ravitch, Diane. 1974. The Great School Wars: New York City, 1805–1973. New York: Basic Books.

Sanders, James. 1977. The Education of an Urban Minority. New York: Oxford University Press.

Shananbruch, Charles. 1981. Chicago's Catholics: The Evolution of an American Identity. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

Vinyard, JoEllen McNergney. 1998. For Faith and Fortune: The Education of Catholic Immigrants in Detroit, 1805–1925. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Walch, Timothy. 1996. Parish School: American Catholic Parochial Education from Colonial Times to the Present. New York: Crossroad.