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On the Shoulders of Giants: Female Giants

Tuesday, March 15, 2016 by Monica Kowalski, Ph.D.

Women's History Month Reflection Kowalski Nuzzi

This month we celebrate women’s history and reflect on the many contributions of women to Catholic education. With Fr. Ron Nuzzi, I recently explored the history of women in Catholic education for a chapter we are writing for a book on International Perspectives on Women in Educational Leadership. I was inspired by finding that dating back to colonial times, and continuing into the present, women have been instrumental in establishing, leading, and ensuring the success of Catholic schools in America.

Vowed religious women were especially essential to the survival of Catholicism as a religion in America.

We often think of the Pilgrims as Puritan Protestants seeking religious freedom in the New World, but Catholics were among the first immigrants to settle in the colonies as well. These Catholics were a minority group and faced religious persecution in addition to the typical hardships of colonial life. Walch (2003) detailed how during this difficult time, vowed religious women were especially essential to the survival of Catholicism as a religion in America. The establishment of Catholic schools by orders of religious women was one important way that this was accomplished.

No history of women in Catholic education would be complete without acknowledgement of Saint Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton, often described as the mother of American Catholic education (Hunt, Joseph, & Nuzzi, 2004). Seton converted to Catholicism in the early 1800s and founded a religious order, the Sisters of Charity, dedicated to caring for children of the poor. The Sisters of Charity focused on teaching and operating a system of Catholic schools in Maryland, which served as the foundation for the modern Catholic parochial school system.

75% of Catholic school principal positions and 49% of Catholic school superintendent positions are occupied by females.

Other orders of vowed religious women were also instrumental in establishing and operating early Catholic schools throughout the developing nation, such as the Ursuline nuns in New Orleans, the Dominican Sisters in Kentucky, and the Society of the Sacred Heart nuns in St. Louis. The School Sisters of Notre Dame worked in Catholic schools in Cincinnati and the Sisters of the Holy Cross established schools in Indiana. Many other religious orders from countries throughout Europe sent nuns to America for ministry in Catholic schools. This influx of vowed religious sisters provided a dedicated staff to teach, lead, and inspire students in Catholic schools.

Today, far fewer vowed religious sisters are active in American Catholic education. However, Catholic schools are still predominantly staffed by women, with the National Catholic Educational Association reporting that over 75% of lay professional staff in Catholic schools were female in 2013-2014 (NCEA, 2015). Women have also continued to be leaders in schools and schools systems, with 75% of Catholic school principal positions and 49% of Catholic school superintendent positions occupied by females (O’Loughlin, 2015). Clearly, women have played an enormously important role in the establishment and proliferation of the American Catholic school system. We owe a great deal of gratitude to the early women leaders of Catholic education and to the many women currently working in service to Catholic education in our country.


- Hunt, T.C., Joseph, E.A., & Nuzzi, R.J. (2004). Catholic schools in the United States: an encyclopedia. (2 vols). (Eds.). Westport, CT: Greenwood.

- O’Loughlin, M. (2015). Most Dioceses Have Women in Key Posts, but Some Have None. Crux: Covering All Things Catholic. Retrieved 29 November 2015 from http://www.cruxnow.com/church/2015/05/14/women-us-catholic-dioceses-leadership-data/.

- Walch, T. (2003). Parish school: American Catholic parochial education from colonial times to the present. Washington, DC: National Catholic Educational Association.