Each school year, just after the beginning of the second semester, we at Saint Ignatius, in union with all Catholic schools around the country, celebrate Catholic Schools Week.
The history of Catholic schools in America is an interesting one, and begins in a time closer to that of Christopher Columbus than that of George Washington. In 1606 the Franciscans founded a school in what is now St. Augustine, Florida, but it and all others from the 17th century were unsustainable with such a small Catholic population.
The one remaining institution from before the Revolutionary War is Ursuline Academy in New Orleans. Ursuline Academy has been educating young women, free and slave, since its founding in 1727, and it is a shining example of the belief that a Catholic education exists to serve all young people, regardless of gender, ethnic origin, economic or social status, and even religious conviction.
The prevalence of Catholic schools in American society did not come about until the great waves of immigration from the Catholic nations of Europe in the 19th century. In the latter half of the 1800s, through the movement of tens of thousands to these shores from places like Ireland, Poland, Italy, and Germany, the Catholic population of the U.S grew from five percent to seventeen percent of the total population.
The backlash against this sudden growth in the population of non-White Anglo-Saxon Protestants was fostered by groups like the Know-Nothing Society and the Ku Klux Klan who felt that this influx of people who are loyal to a foreign power – the Pope in Rome – created a climate that was dangerous for “true” Americans. These immigrant Catholics, many of whom were not native English-speakers, took refuge in their parishes and the parochial schools attached to them.
Within a century the number of Catholic schools reached almost thirteen thousand and those institutions housed over five million students. From that high-point in the 1960s Catholic schools have lived through some tough times, and today the number of schools has been cut in half and those surviving schools educate around one-third of the number that they did during the Kennedy administration.
Despite those less-than-optimistic statistics, Catholic education continues to contribute to American society in a number of ways, including saving U.S. taxpayers around $15.5 billion each year in education expenses. More apparent than the economic benefits to our country is the continuation of the vision set in place by the Ursuline sisters in New Orleans almost four hundred years ago.
Today’s Catholic schools educate over 350,000 minority students, mostly in major urban areas, while a similar number of our students come from non-Catholic households.
For those of us at Saint Ignatius we are fortunate to have been able to buck the trend of downsizings, mergers and closings. When I was a freshman back in the fall of 1973 there were about a thousand students walking these hallowed halls, and today we are bursting at the seams with over fifteen hundred Wildcats, including over four hundred freshmen. Our commitment to ethnic and economic diversity has enabled Saint Ignatius to become a school that looks a lot more “catholic” than ever before, aided by the incredible generosity of our many benefactors who have been committed to making an Ignatius education available to every qualified student.
To be honest, when I think of Catholic Schools Week my thoughts turn first to the incredible lunches provided by our selfless Loyola Society moms, but when I take the time to dig a little deeper I am reminded of where we have been and where we hope to go. I am definitely most grateful for the sumptuous meals provided throughout this week, but I am also grateful that we are an important part of the continuation of a centuries-old ministry of forming young people as disciples of Jesus, a ministry that is an essential part of the fabric of American society.