History: When Were Catholic Schools Established in Louisville?

Early Days

The organization of the Catholic Church in the United States has been strongly parish-centered from the beginning, and many schools continue to be operated by individual parishes.  However, many of the early Catholic Schools in this country and in Kentucky were either colleges or seminaries, private schools and academies founded by groups of religious men or women.

Some form of Catholic education likely extends back to the days when the first Catholics came to Kentucky, joining the earliest settlers from the coastal colonies in 1775. These pioneers included Jane Coomes, believed to be the first teacher in Kentucky, and George Hart, the first physician. Not until 1785 did larger groups, or “leagues,” of Catholic families from Maryland begin to enter the region.

The first Catholic school of consequence was established by the Trappist order at Saint Bernard Church in Casey Creek in 1807.  However, the Trappist presence was short-lived after a fire and flood destroyed the settlement.

Catholic School education began to flourish after three sisterhoods were established in this pioneer diocese – the Sisters of Loretto, who operated a school at St. Charles Parish and received a rule of religious life in April of 1812; the Sisters of Charity, founded later that year, and the Dominican Sisters, who joined the Dominican Fathers in establishing their first American foundation in Kentucky. In 1809, the Dominican Fathers founded Thomas Aquinas College and in 1814, the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth founded Nazareth Academy, an early ancestor of today’s Spalding University. Bethlehem High School, founded by the Sisters of Charity in 1819, is the earliest extant Catholic elementary or secondary school in the Archdiocese. The first Catholic school founded in Louisville is Presentation Academy, established by the Sisters of Charity in 1831. In 1836, Saint Boniface Parish opened a school, the first truly parochial or parish school in Louisville.

Diocese of Bardstown

On April 8, 1808, Pope Pius VII subdivided the primal see of Baltimore by constituting the Dioceses of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Bardstown, Kentucky. To head the latter see, the first in inland America, the Holy See named Benedict Joseph Flaget, who was an exile from the turmoil of the French Revolution.

This “First Bishop of the West” arrived in Kentucky in 1811. Flaget’s far-flung area of responsibility covered all the land from the Great Lakes to the Deep South and from the Allegheny Mountains to the Mississippi River. From this “mega-diocese” there would eventually be carved more than forty new dioceses, including Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Chicago, and Detroit. Bishop Flaget’s arrival began an amazing burst of fervor and institutional energies, including the establishment of many more schools.

(Arch)Diocese of Louisville

In 1841, the diocesan see city moved to Louisville and within a short time, many religious orders moved to this growing city, including the Sisters of Charity, the Dominican Sisters, and the Sisters of Loretto, already active in Central Kentucky, along with new orders, such as the Ursuline Sisters, the Xaverian Brothers, and the Sisters of Mercy. After the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884, each parish was directed to establish a Catholic elementary school and this resulted in an historic growth in Catholic Schools, both in the Diocese of Louisville and in the nation. In 1887, the first diocesan school board was established.

By 1892, the Catholic community boasted 25 parochial schools, five academies, three orphanages, and a total of 7,000 students.

In 1937, Louisville was constituted a metropolitan see (an archdiocese) with both the Diocese of Covington (established in 1853) and the newly established Diocese of Owensboro as suffragans. The Holy See erected the fourth diocese in Kentucky, the Diocese of Lexington, in 1988.

Schools grew steadily throughout the twentieth century until the mid-1960s, when cultural shifts, including decreasing vocations and aging among members of religious orders, who for so long staffed the schools, caused economic challenges for the growing system. In the 1980s and 1990s, enrollment stabilized, but population shifts forced the closing or merger of many Catholic Schools. All the while, the rigor and professionalism of Catholic Schools advanced as schools sought to continually improve academics, strengthen Catholic identity, partner with parents, and address needs (family life, drug and alcohol prevention, sex education) in the affective dimension of education.

Catholic Schools in the Archdiocese of Louisville continue to be highly regarded as centers of academic excellence, faith formation, and community, but economic challenges remain due to the high cost of education. To respond, the Archdiocese established the Catholic Elementary School Plan as part of its 2014 Strategic Plan.  This effort aims to 1) increase the number of students served through increased accessibility, 2) increase the financial support for families with children who wish to attend a Catholic school, with an Archdiocesan Voucher Fund supported by all parishes and directed to families wishing to send children to Catholic elementary schools, and 3) develop new elementary school structure to address expanding needs within the Archdiocese.

Within the first three years of this plan, the Archdiocese has increased the number of schools by three, stabilized enrollment, and strengthened its partnership with the Catholic Education Foundation to greatly increase the amount of tuition assistance provided to Catholic elementary school families.  In addition, the nine Catholic high schools provide millions of dollars in tuition assistance for families sending children to Catholic high schools.

Today, there are 48 Catholic elementary and secondary schools serving more than 18,000 students from preschool to grade 12 in seven counties of the Archdiocese.

Leadership and Organization

The Archdiocese is led by the Most Reverend Shelton J. Fabre, Archbishop of Louisville, and the Office of Catholic Schools is headed by Superintendent Dr. Mary Beth Bowling.

Our Leadership