A Brief History of Catholic Schools in the Diocese of Dallas
By Steve Landregan, Archival Historian for the Catholic Dicese of Dallas
Catholic education came to North Texas 15 years before the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884 made it mandatory for every parish to have a Catholic School. On October 18, 1869 St. Mary’s School, a parochial school for Immaculate Conception Church, opened in Jefferson, Texas with six Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul and 15 students. Jefferson was part of the Diocese of Galveston, but would become part of the Diocese of Dallas when it was established in 1890. By the time the Baltimore Council met, Catholic schools had been established in Clarksville, Dallas, Texarkana, Denison, Sherman, Fort Worth and Marshall. Most were established by communities of women religious including Ursuline Nuns, Sisters of St. Mary of Namur, Holy Cross Sisters and the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word.
Texas’ first Catholic school was established by the Ursuline Nuns in Galveston in 1847. It was from the Galveston community that six Ursulines came to Dallas to open the first Catholic school on February 2, 1874. When the Diocese of Dallas was carved out of the Diocese of Galveston in 1890 there were 15 schools and academies throughout the Diocese’s 108,000 square miles. At the time Dallas was the largest city in Texas. By 1904 when the National Catholic Education Association was formed, the Diocese had 24 parochial schools and 12 academies for young ladies with 2,996 students. Ursuline Academy, Our Lady of Good Counsel Academy in Oak Cliff and parochial schools at Sacred Heart, St. Patrick and Blessed Sacrament parishes were located in the city of Dallas. The following year St. Joseph Academy with elementary and girl’s high school divisions was opened on Swiss Avenue by the Sisters of Divine Providence.
Holy Trinity College (later the University of Dallas) was opened in Dallas in 1905 by the Vincentian Fathers at the invitation of Bishop Edward Joseph Dunne. With both high school and college divisions, it became the first college-level Catholic educational institution in North Texas. The university closed in 1927 to be revived in 1956. At that time the boy’s high school division was moved to St. Joseph Academy and became St. Joseph Central High School for boys.
The first Catholic school for African-Americans, The Sisters Institute at St. Peter Church, was opened in 1908 by the Sister Servants of the Holy Ghost and Mary Immaculate in Dallas, partially funded by a grant by St. Katharine Drexel. The Sisters of Charity of Refuge (Good Shepherd Sisters) opened Mt. St. Michael’s School for troubled girls in 1916. In 1980 it was relocated and became Matzner High School, which closed in 1988. In 1925 the Daughters of Charity opened Our Lady of Guadalupe Parochial School (later St. Ann’s) the first Dallas Catholic school for Hispanic children.
Father (later Monsignor) Thomas S. Zachry, a graduate of Holy Trinity College, was appointed the first Director of Schools for the Diocese of Dallas in 1934. At that time there were 33 parochial schools, 10 academies (high schools) for young ladies and one college (high school) for boys, Laneri in Fort Worth. Jesuit High School (later Jesuit College Prep) was opened in 1942 in the buildings of the former University of Dallas in the Oak Lawn section of Dallas. With the opening of Jesuit, St. Joseph Central High School for Boys was closed. That same year Ursuline Academy high school division was moved to Walnut Hill and renamed Merici High. All of Ursuline later moved to Walnut Hill in 1950 and the name Merici High was dropped.
A reconstituted University of Dallas was opened in Irving in 1956, that same year Father (later Monsignor) Edward R. Maher was named Superintendent of Schools, succeeding Monsignor Zachry who had served as director since 1934. At the time Father Maher was appointed there were 19 diocesan and private Catholic high schools and 48 parochial and private Catholic elementary schools in the Diocese of Dallas-Fort Worth with a total of nearly 18,000 students. In 1962 he was succeeded by Father (later Monsignor) John F. Meyers who served as superintendent until 1967.
Our Lady of Good Counsel Academy moved to new facilities in Oak Cliff in 1961 and subsequently was renamed Bishop Dunne High School and became a co-institutional diocesan institution. The school opened with 586 students. The girls’ division served 464 girls in grades 9‐12 and the boys’ division began with 122 freshmen boys and added a new class each year. It was staffed by the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur and the Brothers of the Sacred Heart. Members of the Cistercian Order who had fled the Russian suppression in Hungary established Our Lady of Dallas Monastery and Cistercian Preparatory School for boys in Irving in 1962. The following year Notre Dame Special School, for children with learning difficulties, was opened in Irving by the School Sisters of Notre Dame. It would later be expanded to include vocational education and moved to Dallas.
Bishop Thomas K. Gorman established the first Diocesan Board of Education in 1964 and in 1967 appointed Sister Caroleen Hensgen, SSND Superintendent of Schools, making her the first woman religious to hold such a position in the United States. At that time there were 11 Catholic high schools, both diocesan and private and 52 Catholic elementary schools, both elementary and private. Sister Caroleen’s tenure was a time of change with the integration of public schools, the closing of a number of private schools and the consolidation of others. She served under two bishops, Bishop Gorman who retired in 1969 and Bishop Thomas Tschoepe who retired in 1990. During this period the diocesan school board played a key role in adapting to the changes in Catholic education. Only one parochial school, St. Mark’s in Plano, opened during this time, but two private Catholic schools, Prince of Peace Community School (now Mt. St. Michael’s) and Highlands School opened. Both would subsequently come into the diocesan system as privately owned Catholic schools.
Sister Caroleen retired in 1991 shortly after Bishop Charles V. Grahmann became Bishop of Dallas. She was succeeded by Shaun Underhill, who served until 1993 and was succeeded by Father Leonard Callaghan who resigned in 1997. Dr. Charles Leblanc succeeded Father Calaghan and served as Director of Catholic Schools until 2009. In this period five new parochial schools were opened in Plano, Dallas and Waxahachie. In 2005 a third diocesan secondary school, John Paul II High School, was opened in Plano.
Bishop Kevin J. Farrell succeeded Bishop Grahmann in 2007 and Sister Gloria Cain, SSND became Superintendent of Schools in 2008. In October of 2009 all students in grades 1 through 8 took The Iowa Test of Basic Skills, a nationally rated achievement test and scored better than 70 percent of all the students in the United States.
When the Diocese of Dallas was established by Pope Leo XIII in 1890 it extended from Texarkana to El Paso and embraced 108,000 square miles with an estimated 15,000 Catholics. Since that time, all or parts of seven new dioceses have been carved out of the original territory. Today the Diocese of Dallas embraces less than 8,000 square miles with a Catholic population exceeding one-million.
At the beginning of 2010 there are seven Catholic high schools, three diocesan and four private, and 37 Catholic elementary schools, parochial and private, with a total of more than 15,000 students. Catholic education in Dallas has navigated through troubled waters and emerged strong and growing.