History of the Catholic Church in the United States

The Catholic faith in the United States first spread through the work of missionaries, such as Jesuits Isaac Jogues, Jacques Marquette and Eusebio Kino in the 1600s. In the 1770s, Spanish Franciscan Junípero Serra led the establishment of the California mission system.

Catholic education in the United States goes back to at least 1606, when Franciscans opened a school in what is now St. Augustine, Florida. Further north and a bit later, Jesuits instructed such dedicated Native American students as Kateri Tekakwitha (1656-1680). By the latter 1600s, English colonists had set up their own public schools, often with a heavily Protestant, if not blatantly anti-Catholic cast. Even in Catholic-founded Maryland, Catholics were a minority, and in 1677, in Newtown, the Jesuits established a preparatory school. In New Orleans, the Franciscans opened a school for boys in 1718. Ursuline sisters arrived there from France in 1727 to open an orphanage, school for street girls and health facility. This was the first formal Catholic charity in the present United States. Catholics in Philadelphia in 1782 opened St. Mary’s School, considered the first parochial school in the United States.

Meanwhile the Catholic population continued to expand. By about 1776, it reached approximately 25,000 in Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York State alone. Not long after the American Revolution, John Carroll, cousin of Declaration of Independence signer Charles Carroll, saw his dream of a Catholic college take root with the 1789 establishment of Georgetown. The Bill of Rights, with the First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom, helped Catholics further cement their place in post-Revolutionary America. John Carroll was appointed prefect of the United States of America in 1784 and bishop of Baltimore in 1789. Baltimore, the premier see, or first diocese in the country, was elevated to an archdiocese in 1808. Archbishop Carroll died in 1815. (There are now 195 Catholic dioceses and eparchies in the United States, with some 450 active and retired bishops.)

Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton founded the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph, set up a school for poor children in Emmitsburg, Maryland, in 1809 and made the creation of parochial schools a lifetime cause. In 1812, in rural Kentucky, Mary Rhodes, Christina Stuart and Nancy Havern, aided by a Belgium immigrant, Father Charles Nerinckx, formed the Friends of Mary (later the Sisters of Loretto) and began to teach poor children.

The middle of the 19th Century saw increasing Catholic interest in education in tandem with increasing Catholic immigration. To serve their growing communities, American Catholics opened their own schools, aided by religious orders such as the Sisters of Mercy, who arrived from Ireland in 1843, and the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, organized in 1845 to teach in Michigan. At the university level, Fordham University was founded in New York City in 1841. The University of Notre Dame was founded in 1842 by the Congregation of the Holy Cross in Indiana. The Catholic University of America was founded in Washington in 1887.

Such successes sparked a bigoted backlash, fomented by groups such as the Know-Nothing Society. Mobs burnt a convent and murdered a nun in Massachusetts in 1834, destroyed two churches in New England in 1854, and, in that same year, tarred-and-feathered and nearly killed Father John Bapst, a Swiss-born Jesuit teaching in Maine and ministering to the Passamaquoddy Indians and Irish immigrants, among others.

The late 19th Century saw the continued development of religious orders, including the founding of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament by rich heiress Katharine Drexel to meet the educational needs of blacks and Native Americans. It also saw the naming of the first U.S. cardinals, John McCloskey in New York and James Gibbons in Baltimore.

In 1904 Catholic educators formed a new organization, the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA). In 1915, the Catholic Hospital Association, later the Catholic Health Association, was formed. Their first convention brought together 200 sisters, lay nurses and doctors. Today, the organization represents more than 600 Catholic hospitals and 1,200 continuum of care facilities across the country. Every day, one out of six hospitalized patients is cared for in a Catholic health care facility.

In 1910, the National Conference of Catholic Charities was founded on the campus of The Catholic University of America. The organization played a key role in developing the National Housing Act, supporting the creation of Social Security and founding the National Catholic School of Social Service. The NCCC would later be renamed Catholic Charities USA, a national network of Catholic social service providers with its more than 170 member agencies that together served over 8.5 million in need in 2014.

In 1917 the U.S. bishops formed the National Catholic War Council (NCWC) to enable American Catholics to support servicemen during World War I. In 1919, Pope Benedict XV urged the hierarchy to join him in working for peace and social justice. In response, the bishops organized the National Catholic Welfare Council that same year, headquartered in Washington with a general secretary with some staff. In 1922 the National Catholic Welfare Conference was created to address such concerns as education, immigration and social action.

Msgr. John A. Ryan, head of NCWC’s social action department, played a crucial role in developing the moral framework that would underpin the policies of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. In 1970, the bishops launched the Campaign for Human Development, a domestic anti-poverty program, which continues to fund groups led by low-income people seeking to address the root causes of poverty in their communities.

In 1966, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) and the United States Catholic Conference (USCC) were established out of the NCWC. The NCCB attended to the church's own affairs in this country, fulfilling the Second Vatican Council's mandate that bishops “jointly exercise their pastoral office” (Decree on the Bishops' Pastoral Office in the Church, #38). In 2001, the NCCB and the USCC were combined to form the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).

Throughout the 20th Century, Catholic social justice teaching became deeply rooted, reflected in the founding of the Catholic Worker Movement by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in 1933, Catholic labor activism and participation by the Maryknoll community and other religious orders in missionary work around the globe. The Church played an active role in the Civil Rights movement. In 1960, John F. Kennedy became the first and so far only Catholic to be elected President of the United States.

In 1900, an estimated 3,500 parochial schools existed in the United States. Within 20 years, the number of elementary schools had reached 6,551, enrolling 1,759,673 pupils taught by 41,581 teachers. Secondary education likewise boomed. In 1900, Catholics could boast of approximately 100 Catholic high schools, but by 1920 more than 1,500 existed. For more than two generations, enrollment continued to climb. By the mid-1960s, it had reached an all-time high of 4.5 million elementary school pupils, with about 1 million students in Catholic high schools. Four decades later, total elementary and secondary enrollment is 2.6 million. There are 8,000 Catholic schools across the United States today.

The United States received its first visits from popes in the years following the Second Vatican Council, including Paul VI (1965), several visits by John Paul II including the only World Youth Day in the United States hosted in Denver (1993), and Benedict XVI (2008). All three popes addressed the United Nations.

In 2002, the U.S. bishops adopted the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, a landmark document in the church’s response to the sexual abuse of minors by clergy. The norms of the Charter have been adopted by the Vatican and are being implemented around the world to ensure the Catholic Church is a safe environment for children.