The Legacy of Catholic Education

Franciscans Established 1st Catholic School in What Would Be USA More Than 400 Years Ago

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Here is the latest column by Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska, reprinted from the Southern Nebraska Register.

Franciscan missionaries first arrived in Florida more than 450 years ago. They came to St. Augustine, a military fort from which Spanish soldiers waged war with French explorers in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. The fort was a cramped, humid, difficult place to live—it was a remote military outpost, and its inhabitants lived like men at war.

These brave Franciscan friars came to bring the Gospel to the Spanish soldiers—to establish a Church, to celebrate Mass, and to preach Jesus Christ. Eventually, women and children came to St. Augustine, and it began to resemble a town. Slaves arrived, as did Florida’s natives—who were sometimes allies with the Spanish, and sometimes at war with them. The Franciscans preached the Gospel to everyone they encountered. A canonical parish was eventually established, the very first parish in North America. In fact, on Sept. 8 of this year, the Diocese of Saint Augustine will celebrate the 450th anniversary of the first and oldest Catholic parish in the New World. 

After a short time it became abundantly clear to the Franciscans that forming an authentically Catholic community in America would require education and formation in the faith. In 1606, they established the first Catholic school in the land that would become the United States.

The Franciscan school in St. Augustine accepted all children. The children of soldiers, and slaves, and natives were formed in the faith. They were taught to read and to write. They were also taught to pray;  to reason well; to make moral choices. In short, they were taught and formed to live the Christian life—using their minds, and their wills, to serve God and neighbor.

Knowing and serving God has been the foundation of Catholic education in America for more than 400 years. Since the foundation of the small Franciscan school in St. Augustine, thousands of Catholic schools have been established in America. These schools have accepted students, from all backgrounds and family situations, in order to form them to know Christ and his Church, and to live virtuously, freely, and joyfully.

The Catholic schools in the Diocese of Lincoln carry on the holy legacy of Catholic education in America. For nearly 150 years, Catholic schools in southern Nebraska have formed students as disciples of Jesus Christ. The Catholic life and culture of our diocese is a direct result of the holy work our schools undertake.

If we want to continue to build Catholic culture in the Diocese of Lincoln—if we want to continue to form disciples of Jesus Christ—our Catholic schools are essential. 

We have been blessed with holy priests, holy religious, and holy laymen and laywomen across the Diocese of Lincoln. Many of them are graduates of our Catholic schools. I have spent time with Catholic students across our diocese. In fact, I just spent several days with Catholic high school students from all six of our Catholic high schools in our nation’s capital for the March for Life – five busloads!Experiencing their passion for the life issues and hearing their articulate voices in defense of the sanctity and dignity of every human life, I know they are being formed to be life long missionary disciples of Jesus Christ. 

The work of our diocese depends on Catholic education. But Catholic education depends on your support. We all know that Catholic schools do not receive the financial benefits public schools receive. To pay teachers, and buy books, and maintain buildings, they depend entirely on you. To enroll students, regardless of their ability to pay, Catholic schools depend on your stewardship. 
God calls each of us to support our Catholic schools—through regular offering, through the Charity and Stewardship Appeal, and through the Joy of the Gospel campaign. Our commitment to Catholic education is an expression of our commitment to being faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.

The legacy of Catholic education in America, and in the Diocese of Lincoln, is a rich and historic legacy of sacrifice, of generosity, and of God’s Providence. I am grateful for the teachers and administrators of our Catholic schools. I am grateful for parents who enroll their children in Catholic schools. And I am grateful to every Catholic who supports the mission of Catholic schools—the formation of Christ’s disciples, the establishment of Catholic culture, and the salvation of souls.

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