Notes from the Archives
Taken from the Pentecost Edition of the Central California Catholic Life
Schools of the Diocese – Then and Now
The city of Visalia has the distinction of being the location of the first Catholic school in the San Joaquin Valley. Reverend Daniel Francis Dade opened the Visalia Academy of the Nativity on August 26, 1861 and accepted students regardless of religious affiliation. It remained Visalia’s only school for the following ten or so years. The Academy accommodated a few boys as boarders. Father Dade eventually secured an assistant teacher, but in 1872 both became too ill to continue the school and it is believed that it closed sometime in that year due to the departure of the instructors. In 1886 a lay-teacher opened a school in Visalia for Catholic children, but it closed in 1892 when the teacher retired. The next Catholic school to open (1894) was located in Fresno.
Most Reverend John B. MacGinley, D.D. was installed in 1924 as the first Bishop of the recently erected (1922) Diocese of Monterey-Fresno. There were by that time seven parish schools operating and nine in development within the eight counties comprising what is now the Diocese of Fresno. Operating schools in 1924 with opening dates were: Saint Augustine Academy – Fresno (1894); Saint Francis of Assisi School – Bakersfield (1910); Saint Alphonsus School – Fresno (1916); Saint Rose of Lima School – Hanford (1917); Our Lady of Guadalupe School – Bakersfield (1921); Shrine of Saint Therese School (originally Our Lady of Victory) – Fresno (1921); George McCann Memorial School – Visalia (1924).
By 1929, all nine schools in formation had been added to the now-open schools list. These were, with opening dates: Saint Joseph School – Bakersfield (1925); Saint Columba Boys’ High School – Fresno (1926); Saint Anne’s School – Porterville (1926); Saint Mary School – Taft (1926); Saint John the Baptist High School – Fresno (1927); Saint John the Baptist Elementary School – Fresno (1927); Saint Joachim School – Madera (1927); Our Lady of Mercy School – Merced (1927); Saint John School – Wasco (1929). The diocese then had 16 schools.
Soon after a particular parish school was envisioned, the Bishop then contacted and negotiated a contract with a teaching order of Religious, and once classrooms and a convent were constructed, the Sisters or Brothers soon arrived and classes formed and instruction implemented. A teaching order seeking a school might initiate a contact with the Bishop, but this was somewhat rare. A religious order opening a school did not always remain there, and it was not unusual over the years for more than one to provide principals and teachers for the same school. The evolution of a school and its staff was not always systematic and there were instances when the Sisters or Brothers arrived before the living quarters were built, and hurried interim accommodations were secured, most often in vacant private residences. Conversely, classes sometimes started in social halls, basements and even rectories awaiting the completion of the classrooms.
The teaching schedule of the dedicated Religious was often rigorous, as they taught the three Rs Monday through Friday and frequently religious education on Saturdays, preparing students for Confirmation and First Communion. The Sisters and Brothers were left with Sunday afternoons, following their Mass obligation, for attending to their personal and community needs.
It was not unusual for larger parishes to have one order directing and serving the parish school, while another focused on Catholic children’s religious education. If there were two orders at work in a parish, then each would be provided separate housing. Smaller parishes would frequently share religious education Sisters and in these instances they would be headquartered in one parish while also serving in the other nearby parishes. The served parishes shared in the cost of supporting the religious education Sisters in their living costs and ministry.
Schools were not always sustainable, some being closed after a very few years of operation, while others flourished for several years before diminishing enrollment and ever increasing costs of operation drove them to cease functioning. An additional factor contributing to a school being shuttered was the precipitous decline in the number of religious teaching vocations beginning in the mid to late 1960s. Before this, if one teaching order left a school there seemed to be another ready to take its place. Enter the 1960s and this was no longer the case. As the number of Sisters and Brothers in each teaching order diminished the order’s strategy for responding to the pressure varied with most choosing to concentrate their numbers in fewer and the more viable schools; hence, the schools they vacated were left with the alternative of the significantly more costly operation of using much higher paid lay teachers or closure. Many smaller parish schools and others, too, succumbed to this reality. The 21 schools affected, with opening and closing dates, were: Saint Augustine Academy – Fresno (1894-1927); Saint Alphonsus School – Fresno (1916-1971); Shrine of Saint Therese School – Fresno (1921-1987); Saint Joseph/Saint Lawrence Schools– Bakersfield (1925-1971); Saint Columba Boys’ High School – Fresno (1926-1933); Saint Mary School – Taft (1926-1969); Saint John the Baptist High School – Fresno (1927-1945); Saint John the Baptist Elementary School – Fresno (1927-1968); Saint John School – Wasco (1929-1991); Holy Redeemer School – Fresno (1947-1961); Mary School – Delano (1948-2004); Ryan Preparatory College – Fresno (1948-1970); Our Lady of Guadalupe School – Visalia (1950-1968); Our Lady of Mount Carmel School – Fresno (1953-1971); Christ the King School – Bakersfield (1957-1968); Our Lady of Mercy High School – Merced (1957-1971); Saint John the Evangelist School – Tipton (1958-1962); Saint Sacred Heart School – Dos Palos (1959-1971); Saint Jude School – Livingston (1960-1986); Saint Joseph School – Firebaugh (1965-2008); Queen of the Valley Girls’ High School – Fresno (1965-1973)
Today, there are 22 parish/high schools in our Diocese of Fresno. These schools with opening dates are: Saint Francis of Assisi School – Bakersfield (1910); Saint Rose-Thomas McCarthy School – Hanford (1917); Our Lady of Guadalupe School – Bakersfield (1921); George McCann Memorial School – Visalia (1924); Saint Anne’s School – Porterville (1926); Saint Joachim School – Madera (1927); Our Lady of Mercy School – Merced (1927); San Joaquin Memorial High School – Fresno (1945); Fray Garces High School – Bakersfield (1947); Saint Aloysius School – Tulare (1948); Sacred Heart School – Fresno (1949); Our Lady of Fatima School – Los Banos (1949); Our Lady of Perpetual Help School – Bakersfield (1951); Our Lady of Victory School – Fresno (1951); Saint La Salle Elementary School – Reedley (1952); Saint Ann School – Ridgecrest (1952); Saint Anthony School – Atwater (1953); Saint Helen School – Fresno (1953); Shrine of Our Lady of Miracles School – Gustine (1955); Saint Mary Immaculate Queen School – Lemoore (1959); Our Lady of Perpetual Help School – Clovis (1962); Saint Anthony of Padua School – Fresno (1962);
In some parishes, there are teaching orders of Sisters continuing the tradition of being responsible for the operation of the parish school. Lay staff of professional educators is found at other schools, while some have a combination of both. Sustaining a parish school is an always present challenge to the teachers, pastor, parishioners and Bishop.
Generally, those schools with the higher enrollment are more secure than the ones with small numbers of students. The latter continually face the specter of closure with the weight and persistence of the growing economic burden of diminishing numbers of students leading the way. Parishes able to rally around their economically threatened school, whether it be large or small, are keeping their doors open, continuing to provide the parish children with an invaluable Catholic education. The unrelenting effort is very great, but the reward is even greater. That is an mage old, but simple truism.