From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

‘Go and teach all nations’

by Duane F. Schafer, Superintendent of Schools

(From the Sept. 13, 2001 edition of the Inland Register)

Jesus directed his disciples to “go and teach all nations.” Throughout the history of the Church, individuals and religious communities have responded to this call. Here in our own country, teaching the faith was an integral part of life for many of the earliest settlers. The establishment of Catholic schools in the United States can be traced back to the early French and Spanish settlements. In fact, a Franciscan community established a school in St. Augustine, Fla., in 1606 to “teach the children Christian doctrine, reading and writing.”

“In 1640 the Jesuits started a school in Newton, Md., which was financed by an endowment of the local Catholics; and in 1782 the first Catholic school in Philadelphia was opened,” according to Robert J. Kealey, the NCEA Executive Director of Elementary Schools. In many instances, the first Catholic schools in the United States began because parents requested their establishment.

As the immigration of Catholic populations increased during the 19th century, the number of Catholic schools continued to grow. However, this alone did not account for the growth of Catholic schools. In the 1830s the public or common school movement was begun in order to serve specific national goals; and by the 1840s public education incorporated many religious values of a non-denominational Christianity. Many Catholic resisted public education’s attempt to teach “common Christianity”; and as a result, they often became embroiled in conflicts charged with religious, ethnic, and class animosities over the control of the public schools.

According to Kealey, it was during this period that “Some Bishops and priests sought to influence the public school boards to allow the teaching of the Catholic religion and the reading of the Catholic bible in the public schools. While some temporary successes were achieved, no such program lasted more than several years.”

“Finally, in 1884 the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore took place. During this Council the Bishops of the United States required that Catholic schools be built in every parish. The bishops stated that, wherever possible, every parish was to have a parochial school; priests who did not cooperate were to be removed; laity who did not cooperate were to be reprimanded; and Catholic parents were expected to send their children to Catholic schools,” writes Harold A. Buetow. However, despite this decree, says Kealey, “the number of parishes with Catholic schools only approached 60 percent in the mid-1960s.” Before the Civil War, there were approximately 200 Catholic schools in the United States, but that number increased to more than 1,300 within 10 years and to 5,000 by the turn of the century.

During the 20th century dramatic changes took place in our Catholic schools. Our schools became recognized as quality educational institutions; and parents began pressuring the federal and state governments to provide services for their children. By 1964 over 6 million students attended Catholic schools in the United States; but by 1990 the number of students declined to approximately 2.6 million. However, during the last several years we have once again seen a steady increase in our national enrollments.

In addition to the enrollment changes in Catholic schools throughout the 20th century, we have also seen significant changes regarding the staffing of Catholic schools in the United States. The data indicate a change from an almost entirely Religious staff (Sisters, Brothers, priests) of 90.1 percent in 1950 to an almost an entirely lay staff of 93 percent by 2001. These changes can be attributed to many reasons which include a decline in the number of women and men entering Religious communities, the significant numbers of Religious men and women who left their communities, and the decision by many Religious to shift their ministerial focus from schools to other forms of pastoral ministry.

Here in the Diocese of Spokane we have seen similar trends. During the 2000-2001 school year there were 4,451 students enrolled in the 18 Catholic elementary and secondary schools in Eastern Washington. This was a 15.5 percent increase over the 1991-1992 enrollment figures. On the other hand, in 2000-2001 there were 288 certificated personnel staffing the 18 schools, but only seven or 2.4 percent were Religious and/or clergy.

With this significant shift from Religious to lay staffs, the faith formation of our personnel has become a primary emphasis for the Catholic schools located within the Spokane Diocese, if we are going to continue to respond to that call, “to go and teach all nations.” As a result, all of our teachers and administrators are required to obtain a special catechists certificate. This certificate ensures that our personnel have had the opportunity to grow in their knowledge and understanding of the teachings of our Catholic faith. In addition, five years ago, in conjunction with Gonzaga University, the Diocesan School Office developed a spiritual formation program for our teachers and administrators. This program is entitled, Border Crossings. Border Crossings gives our personnel the opportunity to grow in their personal relationship with God through prayer and faith sharing with other Catholic school educators. Both of these programs are important components of the personal and professional development of our Catholic school educators.

(For more information about the Catholic schools in the Diocese of Spokane, contact the Diocesan School Office at 358-7330 or 1-800-831-1768; or e-mail Check out our diocesan website at

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