by Joshua Alan Hoxmeier,
University of Illinois at Chicago
The decline of American Catholic education from the middle of the 20th century is nothing new. Between 1970 and 2010, enrollment and the number of Catholic schools dropped drastically. 3,477 elementary schools (37%) and 781 secondary schools (39%) closed. Nationwide, primary enrollment fell by 55% (1.85 million) and secondary enrollment by 39% (396,277).
This unfortunate story of decline has not played out the same everywhere, and the Diocese of Lincoln is an example. At first, Lincoln’s Catholic school system closely followed this national narrative of decline. The diocese reached its historic highs of ten high schools and 2,156 students and thirty-six elementary schools with 6,942 students in the early to mid-1960s. But by the late 1970s, that number had fallen to just 1,610 students in six high schools and 3,563 students in twenty-four elementary schools. This initial decline demonstrated that at first Lincoln was not unique and did not avoid the general trend of decline. This made what happened next all the more remarkable.
Since 1980, Catholic schools in Lincoln have not only achieved noticeable stability, but have even reversed some of the downward trends that occurred in the late 1960s and 1970s. As of 2010, the diocese still had six high schools and was passed to twenty-five elementary schools. Between 1980 and 2010, enrollment increased by 31%, or 1,669 students. By comparison, national enrollment fell by more than one million students, or 33%. Moreover, Lincoln achieved this success while having some of the lowest tuition rates in the country. The average tuition in 2021 for Catholic elementary schools was $4,841 and $11,239 for secondary schools. But in Lincoln, the average elementary tuition in 2022-23 is $2,207 and the average high school tuition is just $3,356. Tuition at Lincoln High School is often lower than elementary schools in other dioceses. Much of this success was due to Bishop Glennon Patrick Flavin, the diocese’s seventh bishop, who came to Lincoln in 1967 and focused intensely on Catholic education. Some of his efforts are fairly well known, such as the founding of the School of the Sisters of Christ the King in June 1979. Others are less so and two stand out in particular: the priests in Catholic education and the sacrifices of lay teachers . Both of these methods have reduced costs and tuition fees, keeping Catholic education accessible and affordable.
From the late 1960s, along with the decline in religious vocations, the number of teaching priests seriously declined. Lay teachers filled these positions, which sent school staff costs skyrocketing to levels previously unheard of. The teaching services of priests were seen as part of the larger responsibilities, duties and sacrifices demanded by their vocation to religious life. They did not teach for a living. Lay teachers, however, naturally expected a full salary as teaching was their profession and their means of supporting their families.
Lincoln first followed this trend. In 1960, forty-nine priests were teaching in the diocese. A decade later, that number had dropped to just seventeen. Moreover, the four priest-chiefs of the diocese in 1960 had completely disappeared by 1980. But for Lincoln, this decline of priests in Catholic schools did not continue into the 1980s as it did for the rest of the country. In 2010, the diocese had thirty-six priest-teachers, more than double what it had in 1970. And in 2020, there were sixty-four priest-teachers. Additionally, in 2010 there were eight priest-directors, twice as many as in 1960. Additionally, from the 1980s, priests served as superintendents for each school. Taking all three positions together, Lincoln had many more priests involved in Catholic education in 2010 than in 1960.
In a 2019 Southern Nebraska Register (SNR) article, Reagan Scott noted, “One of the things that makes the Diocese of Lincoln unique is its practice of having priests teach most high school theology courses. “. Bishop Flavin and his successor, Bishop Fabian Wendelin Bruskewitz, accomplished this feat by placing a strong emphasis on teaching during priestly formation and making education one of the most common ministries for priests. During their formation, the seminarians of Saint Gregory the Great Seminary took courses in education. And as Scott said, “After their ordination, it is common for priests to find themselves assigned to teaching.”
Having such a large number of priests in Catholic schools came with significant financial benefits. Based on the average salary of approximately $60,000 for Catholic school principals in Nebraska in 2022, a conservative estimate of a savings of $50,000 for each of the eight priest-headmasters was $400,000. The sixty-four priest-teachers saved more than a million dollars. And the superintendent priests probably saved over a million dollars as well. The financial benefit that Catholic school priests brought to the Diocese of Lincoln was unmistakable. These savings have reduced the average cost per student while providing a highly rated education. For example, in 2021, the average cost per student at Pius X High School was $6,590. This was about half of what it cost Lincoln Public Schools and about $9,000 less than the average Catholic high school.
While the Lincoln School’s staff of priests was large, lay teachers still made up a large portion of the teaching staff in the diocese. Flavin challenged many of these lay teachers to sacrifice themselves for the good of Catholic education. To this end, the diocese established the Catholic Teacher Corps (CTC) in 1974. The CTC hoped to attract recent college graduates as well as mothers who had obtained teaching credentials but had given up education to raise a family. On January 11, 1974, Father Myron Pleskac said that recent university graduates are “often imbued with a desire to dedicate themselves to a noble cause, at least for a time.” The CLC gave them the opportunity to “make a substantial contribution to their parish”.
This opportunity was that of a special service to the Church, to edify the Catholic schools of the diocese by “sacrifice and devotion”. And the CLC certainly demanded significant sacrifices: CLC teachers committed for a year to teach the same workload as regular teachers, but with a salary of only $3,000 compared to the average at the time. of $8,903. Twenty people applied for the CLC in its first year alone, suggesting that for many the special service to schools in the diocese makes up for the sacrifices of the program. In many ways, the CTC proved to be ahead of its time. Decades after the CLC began, many scholars, including Timothy Walch and the Reverend Richard Jacobs, have suggested that Catholic dioceses work more closely with local Catholic colleges to find qualified teachers. In 2000, Jacobs said that through such collaboration, “some of these undergraduates might be inspired to sacrifice themselves for this ministry after graduation, even if only for a short time.” . Comparing Jacob’s words with those of Father Pleskac made it clear that Lincoln was ahead of the game in this regard and that the CLC was a way for his Catholic schools to thwart the national trend of soaring costs. By positioning teaching as a service to the Church, many lay people have shown themselves ready to sacrifice themselves for Catholic education. Similar to the presence of priests in Catholic schools, the sacrifice of lay teachers has also helped reduce costs and lower tuition.
The trajectory of Lincoln’s Catholic school system between 1980 and 2010 resisted national trends of decline in a variety of areas. Registrations have increased. The diocese has achieved a stable number of nuns and an increasing number of priests in the classrooms. And tuition fees remained among the lowest in the entire country. These measures, along with many others such as the diocesan development plan, demonstrated what was possible if bishops, priests, nuns and laity continued to place a strong emphasis on Catholic education. The history of Catholic education in the Diocese of Lincoln has shown what a concerted effort to sustain Catholic education could accomplish even during the decline of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
Joshua A. Hoxmeier is a doctoral student in the Department of History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is from Lincoln and graduated from St. Joseph Elementary School and Pius X High School. His dissertation focuses on the Diocese of Lincoln between 1960 and 2012 explaining how the diocese resisted national trends of decline in l American Catholic Church since the mid-twentieth century. The full version of this article will appear in the upcoming Winter 2023 issue of the US Catholic Historian (Vol. 41, No. 1).