The evening sun is perceived as still setting when in fact it has already dipped below the horizon. Something similar happens in other contexts. A historic period, for example, may actually have ended before the people it shaped quite realize it has gone.
An instance of this is suggested almost casually by a few general statistics in a news release issued by the National Catholic Educational Association two months ago. The prestige of U.S. Catholic elementary and secondary schools is probably greater today than ever. In the big cities they are generally considered better than public schools. All the same, there are fewer of these schools than there were 40 years ago, because there are fewer sisters to run them. Financial pressures are constant when most teachers are laypeople, who must in justice be paid a fair wage.
The N.C.E.A. bulletin reported that in the academic year 2002-3, the total U.S. Catholic school enrollment was 2,553,277. The 6,785 elementary/middle schools had 1,906,870 students; the 1,215 high schools had 646,407. Together these schools had a full-time equivalent professional staff of 163,374. Of this number, 94.4 percent were laymen and laywomen and 4.2 percent were sisters.
Even people who have not been paying attention can see that these overall numbers and this distribution of personnel point to an epochal change in American Catholic education. Over the last two centuries, American Catholics built an educational network that eventually extended from nursery schools to colleges and universities. Historians are likely to rate this as one of the great religio-cultural achievements of the first two millennia of Catholic Christianity. In its own way, it stands alongside such accomplishments as the civilizing effect of Benedictine monasticism in the western stretches of the old Roman empire or the building of 13th-century Gothic cathedrals or the breaking out of 19th-century Europe to carry the Gospel around the world.
By 1965, the year in which the Second Vatican Council held its fourth and final session, there were in the United States 10,931 elementary schools (almost all of them parish schools) that enrolled 4,566,809 children—nearly twice the 2002-3 enrollment. There were also 2,465 high schools (diocesan, parochial and independent) with 1,095,519 students.
At the elementary level, the establishment and maintenance of this system had been largely the work of women—the members of several hundred religious orders and congregations. In the 19th century, almost all the teachers in the Catholic lower schools were sisters, and as late as 1965 sisters still outnumbered lay teachers by more than two to one in elementary schools. The Official Catholic Directory for 1965 reported that there were then 104,314 sisters teaching in Catholic schools somewhere along the line from kindergarten to graduate seminar. The directory for 2003 notes that the corresponding number for this year is 7,389. It is not fanciful to conclude that an era has ended.
For decades, hundreds of young women entering religious congregations were dispatched almost at once from the novitiate to classrooms rocking with the exuberance of 60 or more children. When the school day was over, the sisters returned to the convent for afternoon prayer, supper, “recreation” (an hour of lively conversation often accompanied by some useful needlework), and then preparation for the next day’s classes.
On Saturdays, the sisters took off for nearby universities, where they were accumulating credits toward a bachelor’s degree. On Sundays, they monitored the parish Mass for children and taught catechism to public school students. There was never a time when even half the Catholic youth from 5 to 17 were in Catholic schools.
Often enough, when these sisters were well into middle age, they could still be found during the summertime in their voluminous habits on the campus of a Fordham University or a St. Louis or a Notre Dame taking more courses or working for a master’s degree.
If some of these overburdened women have been portrayed in waspish memoirs as less agreeable than Medusa, most sisters are remembered with affection touched with awe. At how many dinner tables were not arguments concluded by the untrumpable dictum “Sister says...”?
What sister said may not always have been quite correct, but by and large she and her colleagues set generations of children on the way to becoming both good Christians and good citizens. In this world those women were nearly anonymous, and now their mortal remains lie under identical headstones in cemetery plots on motherhouse grounds. But for the work they did, they will surely, as the prophet said, be “shining like stars for all eternity” (Dn 12:6).