Private Catholic elementary schools established by religious congregations in the United States: Emerging governance models

Mary Grace Walsh, Fordham University


Private Catholic elementary schools in the United States often trace their origins to religious congregations of women and men. The rapid decline of religious vocations and the choice of many religious to serve in diverse ministries since the Second Vatican Council, has had an effect on all Catholic schools. Schools founded by religious congregations, which typically were staffed by sisters or brothers, are now comprised of a largely lay staff. New governance models have emerged to replace the traditional congregational governance in many of these schools. This qualitative study incorporates elements of historical, ethnographic and case study research. A purposeful sample of eight schools was selected for a site visit and semi-structured interview with the principal. An interview with a Catholic school superintendent who helped transition a private school to a parochial model and an interview with a provincial leader of a congregation that recently closed a school enhances the research. The study examines the ways private Catholic elementary schools in the United States embody the charism of the founding community and how current governance structures support the expression of that charism. It considers the perceptions of school leaders about future viability and it examines the relationship between private Catholic elementary schools and the arch/dioceses in which it they are located. Chaos theory forms the theoretical underpinnings of the research. After the data collection, four schools were categorized as resilient and four on the "edge of chaos." The latter are poised to adapt and change direction in order to remain viable. Other results of this study indicate that intentional transmission of a founding charism helps a school to be more resilient when faced with chaos. Schools that have formed a new governance structure, with strong support from the founding community, are more resilient. When a religious community separates itself, either formally or informally, from a school they founded, the school finds itself on the "edge of chaos" and faces important choices if the school is to survive. Recommendations for religious congregation, board, arch/diocesan and school leaders are presented as well as recommendations for further research.

Subject Area

Educational administration|Education history

Recommended Citation

Walsh, Mary Grace, "Private Catholic elementary schools established by religious congregations in the United States: Emerging governance models" (2010). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3420966.