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 of the University of Dayton, Ohio, and I compiled a book on urban Catholic schooling from the earliest days of American settlement to the halcyon days of the Second Vatican Council. “Urban Catholic Education: Tales of Twelve American Cities” (published by Alliance for Catholic Education Press) 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 spanerse and distinctive portrait of urban Catholic education.{{more}}

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 spanerse 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 that are touchstones for the future. For example, one important tradition is cultural spanersity. 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. People of spanerse 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.

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.

These traditions – cultural spanersity, 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, urban Catholic schools will be beacons of refuge in difficult times. Sometimes looking to the past offers us a way forward.

Timothy Walch is the author or editor of many books on Catholic education. He is a member of St. Thomas More Parish in Coralville, Iowa.