“We shall have to build the schoolhouse first and the church afterward. In our age, the question of education is the question of the Church.”
By Patrick J. Reilly in Crisis Magazine
In Northern Virginia, where critical race theory, gender ideology, and emptied classrooms because of COVID-19 have sparked protests by angry parents of public-school students, a parish priest is taking up the legendary Archbishop “Dagger John” Hughes’ mission of helping Catholic children get out of public schools by every means possible.
Archbishop Hughes founded the Catholic school system in New York City in the mid-1800s and famously declared, “We shall have to build the schoolhouse first and the church afterward. In our age, the question of education is the question of the Church.”
Faithful Catholic education is no less urgently needed today. So, when the pandemic hit last year, Fr. John De Celles of St. Raymond of Peñafort Parish in Springfield, Virginia, instituted a one-time $2,000 scholarship for each child in his parish who switched from a public elementary or secondary school to a Catholic parochial or lay-run school.
This year, Fr. De Celles has renewed that offer again, thanks to the generosity of parishioners. He also doubled the parish’s annual, renewable scholarships to $1,000 for students in Catholic grade schools and $2,000 for students in Catholic high schools. And on a case-by-case basis, St. Raymond’s offers additional financial aid to families in need and helps cover the direct educational costs of families who homeschool.
These scholarships are not a marketing strategy for the parish school—in fact, there is no school at St. Raymond’s. Instead, parishioners attend nearby parochial schools or Angelus Academy, one of a growing number of faithful, lay-established schools. St. Raymond’s also supports an active group of Catholic homeschooling families.
The goal in promoting all of these options is to ensure that kids get a Catholic formation.
“We need to do whatever we can to help parents get their kids out of these corrupt government-run schools,” Fr. De Celles says. “We talk a lot about ‘evangelization,’ but we’re losing the souls we already have if we let these little ones be prey to the wolves. They will leave us and Jesus. We must do everything we can to save them, literally.”
The parish scholarships and Father’s efforts to highlight the dangers of public schools in bulletins and other parish communications have persuaded families to make the switch to Catholic education. One family told him they “cannot imagine going back to the public school system.”
Another family, whose 5th-grade son transferred from a public school into a Catholic school, told Father, “It was the best decision we made. Your assistance helped to make this happen for us, and we remain eternally grateful to you!”
Fr. De Celles was especially happy to grant a full scholarship to a single, immigrant mom with huge financial troubles. He awarded another to a family caught up in financial problems related to the pandemic. This year, he said, the family is back on their feet and able to pay most of the tuition themselves.
“Parents tell me all the time how they love the Catholic schools, and how grateful they are,” Father says.
For many Catholic families, Catholic schools are too expensive. Today the average annual tuition for Catholic elementary parochial schools is $5,178, and for Catholic high schools it’s $10,575, according to the National Catholic Educational Association.
Fr. De Celles believes that pastors and Catholic school leaders should avoid getting “stuck in the mindset that they have to ‘compete’ with public schools, so they spend all sorts of money on expensive buildings, facilities, equipment, gymnasiums, science and computer labs instead of first focusing on providing a solid education in a Catholic setting and culture.”
Rather than worrying about what most matters—like serving “the lower middle class and poorer devout practicing Catholic families who simply want their kids in Catholic school but can’t afford to”—the Church needs to avoid looking at “the wrong numbers, enrollment rather than cost,” Fr. De Celles says. He especially wants to help out “the ones we’ve convinced to have large families,” who “accept the faith in a radical and sacrificial way” but are often priced out of parochial schools.
“We need to consider Catholic schooling—solid Catholic schools teaching and exemplifying the faith—as one of our primary goals,” he says. “So what if we underwrite the schools with offertory surplus? We need to save the souls of our kids.”
In addition to helping families with charity, Fr. De Celles advocates school choice policies.
“I used to be opposed to school vouchers from the government,” he recalls. “My fear being that once they get their fingers in our schools, and we become addicted to their money, they will eventually start to control us.”
On the other hand, if Catholics eventually have to forego voucher money or tax credits because of moral concerns, “we’ll be in no worse shape than we are today,” he reasons. The simple fact remains that “it is unjust for the government to tell parents where they must send their own children if they want to take advantage of their own tax money.”
Fr. De Celles also supports Catholic homeschooling, “because parents are the first educators of their children, not us. And if they choose to be more active in their children’s formation, God bless them! That’s great, and we should help them.”
Homeschooling works, “because one size does not fit all,” says Father. “We can’t say, ‘Here’s your parish school, take it or leave it.’ We have to give them alternatives that fit their needs and capabilities and goals.”
Another hopeful alternative is lay-run Catholic schools outside the parochial system, as long as they are “truly Catholic.”
“We’re America—where are our creative, free, enterprising Catholic educators who want to establish new, faithful and independent schools?” he asks. “We’ve seen so many success stories—schools run on a shoestring but providing for a real need, what parents want. Again, pastors and bishops should encourage and support this in every way possible.”
To find solutions for Catholic families today, we can look back to the example of Archbishop Hughes, who did not abandon Irish Catholic immigrants in the mid-19th century. Instead, he brought them to Christ through rigorous moral preaching and continually proclaiming the love of the Sacred Heart. The Archbishop’s attentiveness helped the Irish people relearn a sense of sin and guilt and become outstanding citizens and leaders in the city.
Importantly, he knew that education was the way to help the Irish people up from poverty and lawlessness to stable and upstanding lives. Hughes fought against the public school system, which was essentially run by Protestants. His attempt to win state support for Catholic schools caused controversy and a backlash with the Maclay Bill of 1842, which barred religious instruction from public schools and funds for denominational schools. But Hughes was not deterred, and he went on establishing even more Catholic schools.
Were the challenges he faced much different from what we face in the 21st century? American Catholics were openly discriminated against for their religious beliefs. Large numbers of Catholic immigrants were quickly assimilated into public schools, which opposed Catholic teaching. Families were in crisis—especially the poorest in the inner cities—and they were battered by promiscuity, alcoholism, disease, and absent fathers.
Today, America is much more prosperous, yet the challenges facing the Church and society still include discrimination against Catholic beliefs, the assimilation of Catholic immigrants, sexual immorality, substance abuse, fatherlessness, and even a devastating plague—plus the corruption of public schools.
All this suggests a return to the solution of Archbishop Hughes: first and foremost, tend to the spiritual and temporal needs of Catholic families. Renew courageous moral preaching, confidence in the love of Christ. And renew commitment to faithful Catholic education in any way that serves the needs of families, forming Catholics to be lights in the darkness.
Pastors like Fr. De Celles carry on the mission of Archbishop Hughes and others who established Catholic education in America, including St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, St. John Neumann, and St. Katharine Drexel. Fr. De Celles recalls the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1889, in which America’s bishops urged parents to withdraw their kids from public schools.
“Today we have an even worse problem,” Father says. “In 1889 the public schools were at least teaching with a Christian foundation, albeit Protestant. Now we face an anti-Christian and really anti-Christ school system.”
On the dangers of public education, bishops today are “essentially silent,” laments Fr. De Celles. “Parents and pastors and bishops should be doing everything possible to save their children from the abuse of public schools.”
Northern Virginia’s Fairfax County, where St. Raymond Parish is located, and nearby Loudoun County have become hotbeds for false ideology. For example, the Loudoun County public schools recently required teachers to use students’ preferred gender pronouns. Students who identify as “gender-expansive and transgender” are allowed to participate in sports “in a manner consistent with the student’s gender identity,” Fox News reported.
In Fairfax County, public school teachers, principals, and other leaders held a one-hour Zoom conference with author Ibram Kendi, an advocate of critical race theory. As The Federalist reported, the call cost $20,000, and the district spent $24,000 on Kendi’s books while making them required reading for K-12 students.
Fairfax schools are also required to make bathrooms and locker rooms available to students based on their self-identified gender. Students must be identified by chosen names and genders, even in official school yearbooks.
These are just a handful of the dangerous influences in public schools. The bottom line is that many public schools today are promoting a worldview that is inconsistent with our faith and often anti-Catholic. Parents, especially Catholic ones, are pulling their kids out.
“We sent our eldest daughter to Kindergarten at a public school, with the hope of using public school for as long as possible, given the expensive tuitions for four children in Catholic school,” recalled one of the families that sought help from St. Raymond Parish. “But we pulled her after her first year, when a teacher casually spoke about same-sex marriage.”
“We have tried to instill our faith in our children as their primary teachers, and now more than ever we know how important it is to protect them from what is being taught in the public schools,” the family wrote.
It’s a concern that Fr. De Celles wants everyone in his parish to take seriously. In a parish bulletin in May, Father wrote that the problems “cause me to wonder if it is immoral to send children to these schools.”
“Think about this: we were all rightly outraged when we heard about the abuse of children by priests and bishops a few years back,” wrote Fr. De Celles. “I remember how, for a while, so many people treated all priests as suspect of these horrible deeds. And we still have all sorts of rules in place in the Church that are to protect our children from the possibility of this ever happening. I understood that.
“But now I wonder, why do we not think or feel the same outrage and suspicion toward our government bureaucrats and elected officials who are also abusing our children by warping their minds with this filth and nonsense? How can we corrupt our kids with this cow manure, and still say we love them, much less expect them and ourselves to remain in God’s favor? How can we do this to our little ones and not fear the fires of hell—for them and us?”
It couldn’t get more serious than that. For Fr. De Celles, helping young Catholics obtain a faithful Catholic education is a pastor’s solemn duty. He is leading the way through his own actions and the generosity and conviction of his parishioners.
It is an approach that will, hopefully, be replicated in parishes and dioceses around the country.