This post is authored by CARA researchers Michal Kramarek and Fr. Thomas Gaunt, SJ (also CARA's Executive Director). It provides a brief look at the contribution of religious sisters to the parochial schools in the United States. The bibliographic information for the references included in the text can be found here.
Written discourse about Catholic parochial schools in the United States has been in decline since 1970’s. In fact, after enjoying over a century of higher attention, the frequency with which the topic appears in American publications in recent years is reverting to levels prior to the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore of 1884 (as shown in the chart below).
While the motto of “Every Catholic child in a Catholic school” attributed to the Council was never fulfilled (Hunt and Kunkel 1988, 286), the accomplishments of those who often committed their entire lives to its pursuit are nonetheless remarkable. The scale of those accomplishments can be illustrated by the sheer size of the parochial school system in its heyday, in the 1960’s:
- In 1960, there were 68 Catholic schools for every 100 Catholic parishes (Kenedy 1961).
- In 1963-1964, there was an all-time high of 13,205 Catholic elementary and secondary schools (Snyder 1993, 49).
- In 1965-1966, there was an all-time high of 5.6 million baby boomers in Catholic elementary and secondary schools which constituted 87 percent of nonpublic school enrollment (Hunt and Kunkel 1988, 277) and 12 percent of the entire Catholic population (Kenedy 1966).
- In the 1960s, “[t]here was hardly a town of more than 30,000 inhabitants in the United States lacking a parochial school” (Stewart 1994, 428).
The rise and decline of Catholic parochial schools appears to be partially a function of changes in the relative cost of operating those schools. The changes in relative cost were, in turn, primarily driven by the immense sacrificial service contributed by religious sisters (e.g., Burns 1912, 284; Stewart 1994, 327). In strictly financial terms, this sacrificial service can be measured as the difference between the amount of salary received by lay teachers in public schools and the amount of salary-equivalent/stipend received by religious sisters in parochial schools (i.e., the salary forgone, for a lack of better term) multiplied by the number of religious sisters in teaching positions.
In regard to the first factor, the salary forgone, the table below summarizes available historical estimates for the stipend of religious sisters in teaching positions. In available years, this stipend was roughly one quarter of the salary of lay teachers in public schools. A caveat should be added that this comparison, while illustrative, is severely limited, because it does not account for many differences between the two groups (e.g., value of room and board, educational requirements, average amount of teaching experience, additional sources of income, retirement funding, or cost of living).
It is also important to point out that the sacrifice of the sisters is larger than the ratio might be implying, because a salary’s utility does not change linearly (i.e., reducing the disposable income does not reduce the quality of life as much as reducing the income needed to cover basic expenses). Sisters monetary compensation shown in the table below is so low by today’s standards it is hard to imagine to us today. Notably, it was also hard to imagine in the past. For example, Oates (1985, 184) described a situation where “[e]ven though salaries paid religious brothers were approximately twice those provided sisters for the same work the men found them insufficient.” Stewart (1994, 322, 408) described sisters’ frugality as “extreme” and their wages to be “meager,” and only allowing for “bare subsistence.”
In regard to the second factor lowering the cost of parochial schools, the chart below shows the number of religious sisters in teaching positions. Notably, the highest number of religious sisters in teaching positions was recorded in 1965 when the parochial system was about to reach its all-time high (as described above). However, the number of religious sisters as a percentage of all teachers in parochial schools was already in decline, which might be an indication that the salary cost increase outpaced the system growth. This might have exacerbated the decline beyond what was the result of decreasing number of religious sisters in the following decades.
A caveat should be added here that other reasons also played a role in the decline of the parochial school system. Those reasons include, for example, public school systems catching up with the rapid population growth, the migration of Catholic population from cities to suburbs, and from Northeast to West (thus away from places where parochial schools were established).
It is important to point out that those large aggregate amounts are only possible due to daily sacrifices of religious sisters that accrued over a lifetime of teaching work. “[The] phenomenal expansion [of the parochial schools] would have been impossible without sacrificial giving by laity and commitment by the rapidly increasing numbers of sisters who taught without remuneration beyond bare subsistence” (Stewart 1994, 322).
While the attention of those leading the discourse about the needs of the Catholic community in the United States shifts to other, important topics, we may be well advised to remember the extraordinary financial contribution that tens of thousands of sisters made to the Catholic Church each year for decades- as much as $3.8 billion in a single year.
Top image source: Sister Joellen Kohlmann teaching religion at Guardian Angels Central Catholic High School from “Nuns getting harder to find in Catholic schools.” Please read this story for more context to the research presented in this post. Photographer and author of that story: Jerry Guenther, Norfolk Daily News.