By Jennifer Barton, Rhode Island Catholic Correspondent

Catholic schools a bulwark against social prejudice then and now


PROVIDENCE — Every school has a story, a history. Catholic elementary schools in America have their own history, and while those stories vary from location to location, the common thread between each of them is the reason for their formation – to preserve and pass on the faith in a land often hostile to the Church.
The earliest Catholic schools were founded in places like Baltimore, Maryland, the first diocese in the U.S., and in French- and Spanish-dominated locales in the Gulf Coast region, namely New Orleans. Religious orders like Jesuits and Ursulines established and ran these early schools.
Waves of immigrants from European countries in the 1800s brought Catholics to the U.S. in droves and from different parts of Europe. Each group had its own flavor: its own language, customs, traditions, way of life. These immigrants often found that their new homeland was not entirely friendly to their new “popish” neighbors, particularly the Irish in the 1840s and thereafter. It was a heavily Protestant nation, and even within the public schools, textbooks leaned toward that end.
In the book “The American Catholic Experience,” University of Notre Dame professor emeritus Jay Dolan recounts the emergence of parochial schools on the American landscape. He explains how heavily Irish cities like New York City made significant strides to establish Catholic schools in the mid-1800s through the efforts of Bishop John Hughes.
Boston, however, was a different story. Anti-Catholic bias ran strong in this city against nearly half of the population, the Irish. Months after a teacher beat bloody the hands of schoolboy Thomas Wall for refusing to recite the Protestant Ten Commandments, “the Boston School Committee ruled that Catholic children could no longer be forced to recite anything contrary to their beliefs,” according to Dolan. Though some Catholic schools were established in Boston and New England, it was not to the same extent as New York City, as church leaders there did not champion the building of schools and parents did not push for it.
Dolan points to Rhode Island and New Hampshire as exceptions to this.
“In New England, French Canadians stood out as the most ardent supporters of the parochial school,” Dolan wrote. “In those areas where they were especially concentrated, Rhode Island and New Hampshire, the overall ratio of churches with schools was much higher than in other regions.”
In Rhode Island, Bishop William Barber Tyler, concerned that immigrant children were “ignorant of the truths of their faith,” began the first Catholic school in the basement of the cathedral, according to a history compiled by Father Robert W. Hayman, Ph.D., diocesan archivist and pastor emeritus of St. Sebastian Church in Providence. The first religious sisters to staff the school, the Irish Sisters of Mercy, arrived in 1851. An incident in 1855 that involved the sisters demonstrates the level of anti-Catholicism in the U.S. at the time.
Father Hayman wrote: “The rapid rise in the number of immigrants in the 1840s and 50s added to fears of Native Americans and aroused the prejudices of many. Nativists’ prejudices came to focus on the Sisters of Mercy and the Catholic schools.”
This led to a near-conflict when a crowd of around 2,000 nativists assembled outside the sisters’ convent and hundreds of Catholic workmen gathered inside. It ended peacefully when “Bishop O’Reilly and Mayor Edward P. Knowles confronted the crowd which, after two hours, finally dispersed when asked to by the mayor.”
Similarly, waves of Catholic immigrants from Germany, and Poland to a lesser extent, who desired schools in line with their faith, settled in the Midwestern states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri and Wisconsin.
Dolan stated that: “German Catholics launched a campaign to preserve language and culture, as did the French Canadians; both viewed the school as critical to the survival of language and faith.”
With the backing of their bishops, these new Midwesterners established their own churches and schools in the mostly rural areas, often engaging religious sisters from their homelands as teachers. Sometimes settlers built the school first and the church later.
By the 1870s, attacks against Catholic schools were in full swing again, with Thomas Nast’s malicious comics plastered in “Harper’s Weekly” and the Blaine Amendment being debated in Congress. Though it ultimately failed as a Constitutional amendment, many states enacted Blaine Amendments, which prohibited government money from going to Catholic schools. Many Protestants saw Catholics who challenged the use of Protestant Bibles and prayers in public schools as a threat to those schools, which had become something of a golden idol in America at the time. Many of Nast’s cartoons depict this fear.
Today, the Church faces hostility again, this time as an attack on moral truths. Many Catholics and other Christians fear backlash should they defend the doctrines of human sexuality and respect for life. Even students in the classroom are often exposed to teachings contrary to the Church.
Since the onset of the pandemic, however, many news sources have noted the enrollment increases Catholic schools have experienced. This is sometimes attributed to their reaction to the pandemic, bringing students back into the classroom as quickly as possible for better learning experiences, as well as parental concerns over the social issues their children were being taught in public schools.
Once again, Catholic schools face the challenge of countering society’s animosity towards the Church, preserving the faith and passing it on to young Catholics, just as the early Catholic schools set out to do.