Catholic schools have had immense influence on U.S. life

One of the great enterprises of religious history in the United States has been the Church's commitment to education.

From the tiny Newton Manor and Bohemia Manor schools begun in the 17th century by the Jesuits in Maryland, the Church created a vast system of parochial schools, high schools and colleges that had an immense impact on American life. As Pope Benedict XVI told Catholic educators during his visit to the United States in 2008, "Countless dedicated Religious sisters, brothers and priests together with selfless parents have, through Catholic schools, helped generatiions of immigrants to rise from poverty and take their place in mainstream society."

The number of Catholics and non-Catholics who have been shaped by Catholic schools is difficult to know exactly, but consider that in 1840 there were some 200 parochial schools. By 1910, there were 4,845 schools educating 1,237,251 students, and by 1920 there were 5,852 schools teaching more than 1,700,000 students. Catholic education in America peaked in 1965 when there were 13,700 schools teaching more than 6,046,854 students.

Despite the decline in Catholic education over the last four decades, today there are still 7,738 Catholic schools teaching 3,079,590 students.

Matthew Bunson is editor of the 2010 Catholic Almanac.