Catholic education in the Diocese of Rochester has a long and rich history, dotted with periods of rapid growth as well as periods of dramatic decline.
St. Joseph Parish, a German parish in Rochester, opened the area’s first Catholic school in 1836, 32 years before the Diocese of Rochester was established, according to a timeline provided by the diocesan Office of Stewardship and Communications. Catholic education was considered so important in the mid-1800s that in 1859 Bishop John Timon of the Diocese of Buffalo — of which the current Diocese of Rochester was then a part — authorized pastors to deny the sacraments to parents who did not send their children to a Catholic school whenever possible, according to the timeline.
In 1871 Bishop Bernard J. McQuaid — who had become the first bishop of the newly founded Diocese of Rochester in 1868 — announced his intention to establish a diocesanwide network of tuition-free parochial schools, according to Father Robert F. McNamara’s book, The Diocese of Rochester in America: 1868-1993.
The late 1800s ushered in a period of rapid growth for local Catholic schools. By 1896 there were 30 parochial schools within the diocese, with 8,320 students enrolled in Catholic schools in the City of Rochester alone. By 1909 the number of parochial schools had reached 53, and in 1929 Bishop John F. O’Hern appointed Father John M. Duffy as the first diocesan superintendent of schools.
Construction of new schools slowed shortly after this appointment, as diocesan parishes began feeling the effects of the Great Depression. This construction had picked up again by 1947, however, and 36 new parochial schools opened between 1947 and 1965. Enrollment increased during much of this period, rising from 31,000 in 1951 to a peak of 55,000 in 1959, according to the timeline.
In the mid-1960s, however, this growth ground to a halt, as diocesan elementary education entered upon days of crisis, according to The Diocese of Rochester in America.
“The crisis was mostly a matter of dollars and cents; and it was a nationwide rather than a purely diocesan phenomenon,” Father McNamara wrote in his book. “Catholic schools had been able to function before because they had maintained modest facilities and depended mainly on the service of nun-teachers who, as religious with the vow of poverty, were paid only nominal salaries.”
The growing public-school system was becoming a potent rival for these modest facilities, according to Father McNamara’s book. The increase of parochial schools necessitated the hiring of an increasing number of lay teachers — who required higher salaries — while at the same time vocations to orders of women religious entered a period of decline, he wrote.
Between 1965 and 1975, 22 parochial schools within the diocese closed or consolidated, and by 1966 diocesan enrollment had dropped to 45,534 students in 97 schools, according to the timeline. Professed religious accounted for 736 of the system’s 1,281 teachers in 1966, but by 1974 they only accounted for 227 of the system’s 940 teachers. Enrollment dropped to 24,662 students in 77 schools that year, according to the timeline.
Between 1980 and 1988, six elementary schools closed and two others merged. Recognizing the need for systemic change, the diocese contracted with the Center for Governmental Research for a study of Rochester’s urban Catholic schools. Enrollment, meanwhile, fell to 18,217 in 1985.
In 1986 the CGR presented its recommendations to the diocese. These recommendations called for the relocation of the seventh and eighth grades from six urban schools to two new regional junior-high schools. However, diocesan officials shelved these recommendations because of public resistance and lack of readiness, according to 1986 accounts in the Courier-Journal, as the Catholic Courier was then called.
In 1988 the diocese organized the parochial schools in Monroe County into a quadrant system (see related story on this page), which was intended to help the schools by centralizing services and pooling resources, according to Courier-Journal articles. Quadrant planning boards began meeting to develop action steps. That September Bishop Matthew H. Clark announced the formation of the Finger Lakes, Southern Tier and Genesee Valley school clusters.
Enrollment continued to drop, falling to 16,044 by 1988, according to the timeline. In 1989 12 Monroe County schools were consolidated into six schools, and two others closed. In Monroe County, the quadrant planning boards disbanded and quadrant governance boards took their place, the timeline states.
In 1994, however, the quadrant governance boards were supplanted by the new Monroe County School Board, which oversaw the operations of all of Monroe County’s diocesan schools.
By 1997 enrollment had fallen to 11,022 students in kindergarten through eighth-grade, according to statistics provided by the Office of Stewardship and Communications. In 2002 then-diocesan schools superintendent Sister Elizabeth Meegan, OP, announced that the seventh and eighth grades from four elementary schools on Monroe County’s west side would be relocated to three centralized diocesan junior-high schools.
“This is not something new to our diocese, but rather a tried and proven model. Students have flourished at the diocesan junior highs since they were established,” Sister Meegan said in a Jan. 10, 2002, statement.
In 2004 six Monroe County schools merged to form three new schools, and one additional school closed. The diocese began to reallocate parish tuition subsidies to provide greater financial aid to low-income families, and also began a national accreditation process.
“We really believe this model will help preserve the treasure of Catholic education for future generations of families in our diocese,” Bishop Clark said in a Nov. 12, 2004, diocesan statement.
By the start of the 2007-08 school year enrollment in diocesan kindergarten through eighth-grade classes had fallen to 5,505, prompting Bishop Clark to convene the Catholic Schools Task Force, which eventually recommended the closing of 13 schools in Monroe County.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was updated with reaction and new information on 2-4-08.