The Official Newspaper of the Diocese of Little Rock

Catholic education is gift from dedicated priests and religious

Published: August 18, 2007   
Vernell Bowen
Superintendent of Catholic Schools

Throughout the history of Catholic education in the United States, many dedicated religious have sacrificed and made it possible for the gift of Catholic schools.

Catholic education had its beginning on the mainland of North America when the Franciscans opened a school in St. Augustine, Fla., in 1606. From the beginning of the exploration of North America, missionary priests came with the explorers, established missions and taught the natives.

As exploration continued and as the colonies were established, more religious began to arrive and establish permanent communities. The school the Ursuline sisters established in 1707 in New Orleans set the pattern for future Catholic schools in the U.S.

Life could not have been easy for these sisters. They left France for the New World thinking there would be supported upon their arrival. When they arrived in New Orleans, there was no convent. The support from the governor who had asked them to come was not there. He had returned to France. Nevertheless, they persevered. The Ursuline sisters continue to direct their attention to the education of the wealthy as well as the poor. The Ursuline Academy in New Orleans remains the oldest continuously operating Catholic school in the United States.

The most noted contributor to Catholic education was St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. A convert to Catholicism and a mother of five children, she devoted her life to educating young girls. In 1808, she was invited to open a school for young girls in Baltimore, Md. In 1809, she took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience from Bishop Carroll. Land was given to her in Emmitsburg, Md., and there she founded a school for girls.

As other women began to arrive to assist Seton with the school, the religious order of the Sisters of Charity was formed. This order is still involved in works of charity and in education. Mother Seton is considered the mother of American Catholic education.

The historical development of Catholic education in Arkansas had its beginning in much the same way as other parts of the country. It is readily noted that the efforts of missionary priests and dedicated religious played a major role in the founding of parishes and schools.

On Oct. 11, 1838, five sisters from Loretto, Ky., arrived at St. Mary's Landing near Pine Bluff to establish the first Catholic school in Arkansas. Records indicate the sisters also established schools of short duration in Little Rock and Post, Ark.

There was much poverty among the sisters during this time and they returned to Kentucky in 1843. When the first bishop of the diocese, Bishop Andrew Byrne, arrived he journeyed to Ireland to ask the Sisters of Mercy to establish a school.

In 1851, he had a convent and school constructed in Little Rock. This is considered the founding date of Mount St. Mary Academy for girls. This school continues to be under the direction of the Sisters of Mercy.

During the 1800s and early 1900s there were many immigrant Catholics arriving in Arkansas. Parishes were established across the diocese and each parish established a school. Frequently, lay men and women were the first teachers of these schools. Sisters were requested to teach in the schools after the schools and convents were built.

At one time, there were 92 Catholic schools in the diocese. Throughout the history of Catholic education in Arkansas there have been 21 different religious congregations working in Catholic schools.

The decline in religious vocations has brought about the inability to have religious staff the Catholic schools.

Catholic religious are to be commended for preparing the laity to take over the schools and maintain their Catholic identity. The influence of the priests, brothers and sisters can be found alive in the dedicated laity currently teaching in the Catholic schools.

Future articles will highlight the religious communities in Catholic schools in the Diocese of Little Rock.

Information for this article came from "On Their Shoulders," by Catherine M. Kealey and Robert J. Kealey as well as "Gift and Promise: Reflections of 150 Years 1838-1988" by Sister Henrietta Hockle, OSB, of Holy Angels Convent in Jonesboro.

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