Urban Catholic education: The past before us

St. Roch School, St. Louis, circa early 1900s.

By Timothy Walch

Urban Catholic education is in trouble. A recent report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute reveals that 1,300 urban Catholic schools have closed in the last two decades and 300,000 Catholic school students have been forced to go elsewhere.

“The school closures,” notes the report, “have cost taxpayers more than $20 billion to accommodate the additional students that public schools have had to absorb.” This is a real crisis for our Church and for our cities.

As if to make matters worse, the Fordham report forecasts more hard times ahead. Something needs to be done to save our urban Catholic schools, but there’s no simple solution to such a complex problem. Where can we turn for hope? I say look to the past.

With the help of a dozen colleagues, Tom Hunt and I compiled a book on urban Catholic schooling from the earliest days of American settlement to the halcyon days of Vatican II.  Urban Catholic Education: Tales of Twelve American Cities” includes chapters on the usual suspects from the eastern seaboard — Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore. And no one will be surprised that we included four cities from the heartland — Cincinnati, Detroit, St. Louis, and Chicago. The final quartet might raise a few eyebrows, however, Catholic cities on the borderland — New Orleans, San Antonio, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Together, these 12 cities provided a diverse and distinctive portrait of urban Catholic education.


We quickly learned that there were substantial differences from city to city. Even though the Church spoke with one voice on matters of faith and morals, Catholic schooling was as diverse as the parents who populated the pews. In short, the history of Catholic schooling is more like a coat of many colors than a seamless garment.  

We also learned that there are common traditions in these 12 cities and that are touchstones for the future. For example, one important tradition is cultural diversity. What secured Catholic education in these 12 cities — and may well sustain them in the future — was the infusion of wave after wave of immigrant Catholics. Impoverished but ambitious, immigrants embraced parish schools as the means to move their children up the economic ladder. People of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, imbued with the American dream, have always embraced the value of Catholic schools — even if they were not Catholics themselves.

A second tradition is adaptability and practicality. The success and survival of parochial education in these 12 cities was ensured by the willingness of Catholic educators over many generations to change and revise the parochial school curriculum in response to the desires and aspirations of Catholic parents. By incorporating practical elements of public schooling into the parish school curriculum, urban Catholic educators promised to secure both the faith and the future of its children.

A third tradition is the importance of community. Urban Catholic schools were community-based in every sense of the word. Each immigrant group established its own parish with its own schools. Parents had a sense of involvement in these schools. To be sure, these immigrants deferred to their pastors and to the nuns in the classrooms, but pastors and teachers alike were well aware that parental support was vital if parish schools were to thrive.

These traditions — cultural diversity, adaptability, and community — are just three of the touchstones that offer a sense of hope for the future of urban Catholic schooling. With faith and fortune provided by all people of good will — prelates and pastors as well as parents — urban Catholic schools will be beacons of refuge in difficult times. Sometimes looking to the past offers us a way forward.

(A member of St. Thomas More Parish in Coralville, Walch is the author or editor of many books and articles on Catholic education. His new book, edited with Thomas Hunt of the University of Dayton, is available from the Alliance for Catholic Education Press at the University of Notre Dame. See www.nd.edu/~acepress for more information.)

Support The Catholic Messenger’s mission to inform, educate and inspire the faithful of the Diocese of Davenport – and beyond! Subscribe to the print and/or e-edition, or make a one-time donation, today!

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Posted on