Browsing The Northern Cross

Schools: Women religious are important part of Catholic education’s past — and future

By David Douglas
Guest columnist

As principal at Queen of Peace Catholic School, I participate in what I call “the great American Catholic school mission.”

In 1884, our parish schools were made the top social priority of the American church, at the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore. At that council, the American bishops resolved that every Catholic child should have access to a Catholic education. The results remain today. From that council the call went out to parishes: build schools. The call went out to the faithful: send your children to Catholic school; otherwise, teach them at home. The parishes and the faithful responded in kind. By 1900, 37% of all Catholic parishes had a school. By the mid-1960s, 57% of parishes had one. That was the height of the school missions, to date.

The Third Plenary Council of Baltimore lasted a month. Once its decrees were announced, the story of the American school mission largely becomes a story of consecrated religious sisters. The practical challenge of staffing these new schools resulted in one of the greatest calls for religious vocations ever made. There were only ten congregations of religious sisters in the United States in the 1830s. By the end of the 20th century, there were 430, the majority of which were originally established to teach. One of these is, of course, our own congregation of Benedictine sisters at St. Scholastica Monastery, brought to Duluth from St. Joseph, by the joint efforts of Bishop James McGolrick and Mother Scholastica Kerst.

The impact these sisters had on generations of Catholic children deserves a much worthier tribute than I give. In our diocese, and across the nation, the additional effects that sisters have had on so many threads of our social fabric – from hospitals to orphanages to homeless services, senior care, and more – merits consideration as the central Catholic story of the last century.

As we have lost our religious sisters, the schools lose more than teachers. Speaking generally, a teacher is a craftsperson. The sisters bring a ministerial charism, beyond the mere craft, that presents Catholic reality to each child even when the actual class is something like chemistry or math. A standard Minnesota teacher’s license doesn’t guarantee a Gospel witness and Christian vision. Standard teacher training does not prepare us with knowledge of Catholic history, culture, or ministry. Oftentimes, lay faculties require additional effort and expense to properly form our basic Catholic witness. While lay teachers bring their own unique witness, no lay teacher is a living sacrament, consecrated in her very person to make the eschatological marriage between Christ and his bride visibly present in history. That is only a sister. That sacrament is the institutional genius of the great American parish school model. It is essentially irreplaceable.

At Queen of Peace, we only lost our sisters six years ago. Father Nick Nelson and I speak often of how we can build a program that encourages vocational discernment, for girls as well as boys, once more: for the sake of the schools, yes; and for so much else that goes to the heart of vibrant Catholic witness and community. There is no divine promise that the school mission, as we know it, will last. If it does, I believe it must include a renewed participation of consecrated religious, in some form.

So, we wait, and we labor, with hope in what is not yet seen. As our bishops call us, today, to a Eucharistic revival, may the parishes and the faithful respond again, in kind. Our history challenges us, always, to deepen our faith. There is unlimited potential in Christ for all these good things.

David Douglas is principal of Queen of Peace School in Cloquet.