Twenty years ago, historian Timothy Walch predicted that Catholic
schools would survive into the 21st century and "continue to influence the
contours of public education as well as prepare young Catholics for future
leadership roles in the Church and in American society."
Walch made that prediction to The Catholic
Messenger, newspaper of the Diocese of Davenport, Iowa, in an article
about his new book, Parish School: A History of American
Catholic Parochial Education from Colonial Times to the Present.
In a revised and expanded edition of the book published in 2016,
Walch remains bullish about Catholic schools. He writes: "As long as there
are parents and pastors interested in parochial education, these schools will
survive. Even though American Catholic parochial education will never again
attain the position of influence it had in the mid-20th century, parish schools
will remain important education laboratories for some time to come."
The National Catholic Educational Association issued the new
edition of Parish School with good reason. Walch
has written extensively about Catholic education and provides a rearview mirror
perspective that ought to help the drivers of Catholic school education on the
journey ahead. "For all the recent efforts to ensure Catholic education,
we should not lose track of the traditions that sustained these schools in the
past," Walch observes. "Going forward, we need to remember our
Walch does just that in a 267-page book that includes a 60-page
guide to further reading and research.
"Parish School" is an effort, he says, to "trace
the contours of American Catholic parochial education from their origins in the
missionary and colonial eras and analyze the importance of these schools for
successive generations of American Catholics."
Among the themes he covers in the book are the survival of the
Catholic faith in a hostile land; immigration, which led to explosive growth in
Catholic schools; the parish school movement; and adaptability, community
building and identity.
Equally valuable are the insights Walch provides about forces
within and outside of the church which impacted the development of Catholic
schools. He noted that the then-U.S. Office of Education wrote in a 1903 report
that the system of Catholic free parochial schools was the most impressive
religious fact in the country at that time. Walch observed that this
achievement came at a high price: disjointed and uncoordinated, rapid growth of
parochial schools — which in turn gave impetus to centralized, diocesan school
While Walch identifies sister-teachers as the single most
important element in the establishment of Catholic education, he also
chronicles the years-long struggle to ensure that they were adequately trained
to teach. Their religious communities gave higher priority to the cultivation
of the sisters' religious vocation, he notes.
Walch writes admiringly
about a priest educator, Father Thomas Shield, who persevered in establishing a
Sisters College adjacent to the campus at The Catholic University of America in
Washington to educate the sisters. But the true motivator for improvement in
the quality of Catholic school teacher preparation was a state requirement for
teachers to be certified.
Interspersed in "Parish School" are anecdotes about
clergy and laypeople who left an imprint on Catholic schools. Walch writes
about a young housewife, Mary Perkins Ryan, who in 1964 dared to ask a
startling question in her book: "Are Catholic Schools the Answer?"
She viewed Catholic schools as parochial in the pejorative sense and an
obstacle to the Catholic mission of witnessing the presence of Christ. Walch
says the book hit the Catholic education establishment like a ton of bricks.
And it's a question that continues to be asked today.
Walch is convinced the answer is a definitive "Yes." He
argues that Catholic schools are both a model for and an alternative to public
education. They develop effective tools for reaching a broad cross section of
students. One innovative approach that Walch identifies is the incorporation of
business and marketing strategies to address parents' demand for clarity of
mission, accountability and a focus on core functions. Another example focuses
on the use of technology to stimulate individualized education.
The book also addresses the various financial initiatives that
Catholic schools across the country use to ensure that all students who want to
attend a Catholic school have the ability to do so. School choice has become
the mantra in many states.
At its essence, a Catholic school seeks to prepare leaders and
Christian stewards for the community and for the future of the church. Parish School serves as a great resource in
understanding the framework.
Arland-Fye is editor of The Catholic Messenger, newspaper
of the Diocese of Davenport.
Get the book
"Parish School: A History of American Catholic
Parochial Education from Colonial Times to the Present (Revised and Expanded
Edition)" by Timothy Walch, 267 pp. (Available through the National
Catholic Educational Association website: www.ncea.org for $23 plus shipping.)