The Creation of the Catholic School System

Photo of Cheverus Centennial School in Malden in 1909.

By Robert Johnson Lally
Archdiocesan Archivist and Records Manager
Cheverus Centennial School, Malden, circa 1909The creation of Catholic schools got off to a slow start in Boston. During the early 19th century, the Ursuline Sisters taught children at their convent. However, after the convent was burned in 1834 by a group of people who had anti-Catholic sentiments, Bishop Benedict Fenwick turned his attention to building other diocesan institutions, including Holy Cross College.
Fenwick’s successors, Bishop John Fitzpatrick and Bishop John J. Williams, took a similar tack. Both bishops were low-key administrators who were striving to lessen conflict in a volatile environment. They thought separate schools would make it harder for Catholics to blend in.
But towards the end of the century, Catholics started to advance socially. The construction boom after the Civil War had created prosperous Irish Catholics who also were being elected to public office. By the time the Third Plenary Council in Baltimore met in 1884, tensions had eased somewhat. Out of the Council came the Baltimore Catechism and a mandate that every parish have a Catholic School. At the time of Bishop Williams’ death in 1907, there were approximately 76 parochial schools in the Archdiocese.
A new century, changing attitudes toward Catholicism and a growing Archdiocese gave Cardinal William H. O’Connell a strong platform to build upon. O’Connell had a different personality than Fitzpatrick and Williams. He was determined to make Catholicism, not only respectable, but also a primary force in Boston. Schools were central to this strategy. Throughout the first half of the 20th century he brought the number of Catholic parochial Schools to 158, and he pioneered the creation of Catholic high schools, which numbered 86 by 1944.
O’Connell set the stage for the growth of the Catholic School system that was to serve the Baby Boomers during the second half of the 20th century.