St. Augustine Catholic
How open are you to finding God?
Catholic Schools – Embracing our future
St. Vincent’s Celebrates 90 Years
in this issue... 
editor's notes
saint of the month
bishop's message
from the archives
in the know with Fr. Joe
work life
theology 101
your marriage matters
the parenting journey
spiritual fitness
parish profile
around the diocese
calendar of events

Catholic Schools
fullfilling our mission

Catholic schools have a long history in the United States tracing their origins to 1606 when the Franciscans opened the first seminary for boys in present-day St. Augustine. To understand the challenges the church faces, we must first examine our past and remind ourselves why Catholic schools were established and why they are a vital part of the teaching mission of the church today.

Although many of the early settlers arrived in America to freely practice their religion, by the latter 1600s English colonists had set up their own publicly supported schools. But since the colonies were overwhelmingly Protestant, the rudimentary education often had a heavily fundamentalist Protestant (if not blatantly anti-Catholic) cast.

As the colonies grew, so did Catholic schools. In Philadelphia the first parochial school in the U.S., St. Mary’s, opened in 1782 and John Carroll founded the first Catholic college – Georgetown in 1789.

In 1857 Bishop Augustin Verot sent for the Sisters of Mercy and the Christian Brothers to open school in St. Augustine and in 1874 the Sisters of St. Joseph opened St. Joseph Academy – the oldest Catholic high school in Florida. Other religious orders followed, establishing schools across the widening American frontier. But with the spread of these schools came an anti-Catholic backlash; churches were burned, priest and nuns terrorized, some were murdered. But growth continued unabated.

By 1900 there were an estimated 3,500 parochial schools in the United States with a total enrollment of nearly 1.8 million. For three generations Catholic schools experienced unprecedented growth, with enrollment reaching an all-time high in the mid-1960s with 5.5 million students.

After World War II Archbishop Joseph Hurley of the Diocese of Saint Augustine began fundraising campaigns to finance large-scale church (and school) construction. Sister of Mercy Josephine O’Leary, principal of Sacred Heart School in Jacksonville, credits Archbishop Hurley with the foresight to purchase land for the future needs of the diocese.

“Every time a new parish was formed, the first building he pushed for, after the church was built, was a school,” Sister Josephine said. “His slogan was ‘Every Catholic child needs to be in a Catholic school.’”

After decades of unprecedented growth and success, Catholic schools are now in flux.

The biggest change to take place in the last 25 years has been the decline of men and women religious teaching in our schools. Today, 95 percent of teaching staff are lay instructors.

Jeanne Brown, principal of San Juan del Rio Parish school in Switzerland, has experienced the changes in Catholic schools firsthand. She attended Christ the King School and graduated from Bishop Kenny High School in 1977. She said the paradigm of teaching has dramatically changed from when she was a child to her role now as an educator.

“We’ve become more enlightened (as educators) as the church has become enlightened about education,” she said.

Brown said that when she was a student the thinking used to be the teacher has the information and the child was an empty vessel, knowledge was poured into the student’s head to be learned, “or they failed.”

“We concentrate more on critical thinking and problem solving now,” she said. “One of the things children today need to be prepared for is adaptability – to be able to keep up with change.”

Patricia Tierney, superintendent of Catholic schools for the diocese, agrees. “In the past there were 60 to 90 children with a teacher at the head of a classroom, the children sat at their desks, they behaved and they learned,” she said. “Now the methods have changed. Students work on group projects together, with an emphasis on teamwork.”

Patricia Tierney, superintendent of Catholic schools for the diocese

In the past, religious order men and women received little or no pay and tuition costs were kept low, allowing most Catholic families to send their children to their parish school. With the shift to lay teachers, tuition costs have risen to cover teachers’ salaries and benefits.

The challenge the diocese and parishes face is keeping tuition costs within reach for families while paying just salaries for our teachers and staff. Tuition costs in the diocese are about the same as the national average of $2,400 a year, Tierney said, with the cost of educating a student in public school nearly double that.

The perception that exists today is only the wealthy and poor (who receive financial assistance) can attend Catholic school.

“We have both ends of the spectrum in our schools, we have both the poor and the rich,” said Tierney. “The middle class is where we’re struggling to increase enrollment, because parents have more financial obligations and more choices to make than ever before.”

Schoolchildren at St. Benedict Parochial School in St. Augustine prepare for the Emancipation Day Parade in Lincolnville, circa 1920s.


The flag is raised over the new Cathedral Parish elementary school in St. Augustine during dedication ceremonies, circa 1914.

There is a gap in tuition costs and the per pupil cost of education. In order to keep our schools open, parish schools make up the difference through direct subsidies from parish, diocesan and other sources. But in today’s economy, parishes and the diocese are struggling to provide needed resources.

“Education is a mission of the church and everyone is responsible for that mission,” Tierney said.

The U.S. bishops concur as stated in their 2005 renewed pastoral on Catholic education. “The burden of supporting our Catholic schools can no longer be placed exclusively on the individual parishes that have schools and on parents who pay tuition. This will require all Catholics, including those in parishes without schools, to focus on the spirituality of stewardship.” The bishops said the future of Catholic school education depends on the entire Catholic community embracing wholeheartedly the concept of stewardship of time, talent and treasure, and translating stewardship into concrete action.

Nationwide, total elementary and secondary school enrollment today is more than 2.4 million students. While the commitment to maintaining Catholic schools remains constant, changing demographics have had a major impact on enrollment. Dozens of inner-city schools have closed due to a lack of Catholic population to support them; meanwhile, fast-growing suburbs are underserved.

In 2005, the National Catholic Educational Association reports that Catholic educators opened 37 new schools closed or consolidated 173 others, for a net loss of 136 schools. Yet one-third of the nation’s 7,800 Catholic schools have waiting lists for enrollment.

Two Sisters of St. Joseph are all smiles as they wield shovels at a groundbreaking ceremony for a Hialeah, Fla., Catholic school, circa 1963..



Grade school children from St. Agnes School in St. Augustine line up for a class photo, circa 1927-1928

Since 1990 the diocese has built six new elementary schools and reopened two others. Total enrollment of all schools in the diocese is more than 10,000 students, with 700 faculty and staff.

The Opportunity of a Lifetime Campaign has raised nearly $28 million since 2000 to provide funding for the construction of the diocese’s two newest high schools: St. Francis High School in Gainesville and Bishop John J. Snyder High School on Jacksonville’s Westside. The campaign also funded renovation and expansion projects at St. Joseph Academy in St. Augustine, Morning Star School for special education in Jacksonville, and an endowment for Guardian of Dreams (see box on page 20).

Tierney said the attraction of a Catholic education is the sense of community in each school. “The curriculum is faith-infused, and the school makes children feel safe, that they are important and are respected,” she said. “Parent involvement is also very important. Research tells us that a school is only as good as the parent’s willingness to participate in the learning process.”

“People don’t realize what Catholic schools are all about,” said Brown. “Education is one of the best tools for evangelization we have. We challenge our students to live the Gospel as Christ calls us to live and that’s hard in today’s society.”

What makes Catholic schools relevant today more than ever, Tierney said, is the ability to educate the total child. “We feel if we can get children from pre-kindergarten to 12th grade then they are prepared to go into college and into society,” she said. “We don’t look at it as preparing them for just college, we prepare them for life. We give them the tools to make decisions when they go out into the world.”

Our bishops remind us that we must respond to challenging times with faith, vision, and the will to succeed because the Catholic school’s mission is vital to the future of our young people, our nation, and most especially our church.

The Guardian of Dreams

In 1866, Bishop Augustin Verot asked the Sisters of St. Joseph to open a school for teaching newly freed slave children in St. Augustine.

Two inner-city elementary schools in Jacksonville, St. Pius V and Holy Rosary, continue the mission of providing quality education to the underserved with the assistance of Guardian of Dreams.

Guardian of Dreams is a nonprofit organization sponsored by the diocese, raising more than $3.5 million since its inception in 1995 to provide educational opportunities for African-American children in the two schools.

“The past tradition of Catholic schools has been to provide education opportunities to immigrant and underprivileged children, regardless of faith, and Guardian of Dreams represents a return to those roots,” said Jim Selzer, executive director of Guardian of Dreams. “Independent studies show that Catholic schools have a special gift for educating the underprivileged and poor. They have a proven track record of efficient and effective use of dollars for education.” And the results of those efforts are impressive: 90 percent of students from both schools earn high school diplomas.

With total enrollment of 360 students, both schools draw from surrounding neighborhoods; 85 percent are non-Catholic and 70 percent receive financial aid.

“If it were not for the Guardian of Dreams, St. Pius V and Holy Rosary would be closed right now,” said Sister of St. Joseph Elise Kennedy, principal of St. Pius V School for the past 28 years. “Our goal, first and foremost, is to offer an excellent education regardless of religion. I believe we achieve that goal within our means.”

Last year, the foundation received approval from Bishop Victor Galeone to establish a new organization: the Guardian of Dreams Alliance of Catholic Schools. The alliance will consist of a Board of Governors whose principle responsibility will manage and support these two schools into the future, with the broad support of the diocese and community.

“The charter of the alliance is to continue to provide education to the poor and disadvantaged and to carry that commitment into the next generation,” said Selzer.