For younger Americans, the ‘Sixties’ is recalled more often than not in places like the History Channel where images – and life, itself – are contrasted in shades of black and white. The era was a time of convention; women were homemakers, men the breadwinners, in theory if not reality.
Across the country, factories were belching out product 24/7 along with what later became known as pollution. Families were booming and the country, it seemed, was busy chasing the American Dream. But in order to compete for this prize, education was essential. And to ensure the best education, many parents opted for neighborhood Catholic schools.
In the mid-sixties, there was no shortage of parochial schools. In 1965, it is estimated that there were more than 13,000 Catholic schools in K-12 education. Fifty years ago, one out of every twelve students attended Catholic school. Today there are fewer than 7,000 and slightly less than five percent of all students are enrolled in parochial schools. In Colorado, there is a total of 62 Catholic schools spread across the state.
And while that number grows smaller by the year, there is no debate about the social and societal contribution these schools made. There is also little doubt that they were successful because of the people who ran them. Nuns.
“They created a learning environment,” remembers Rudy Gonzales, now CEO of Denver’s Servicios de la Raza. Gonzales and most of his siblings attended Catholic school for most or all of their formal education. “The nuns were very strict but learning, behavior and attendance were stressed.” But as indispensable as they are or were in American education, the number of nuns or sisters nationwide continues to shrink at an alarming pace.
As recently as 1965, the number of U.S. nuns was estimated at 180,000. Today, according to a study conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, that number has shrunk to 56,000. And it gets worse. Today there are actually more candidates for the priesthood than young women seeking a religious life.
In an exhaustive report conducted by the Boston Globe for a 2013 story, the average age of a “professed nun” – one who has made a full commitment to the church – is 60 and above.
“In the fifties, a lot of Catholic girls pondered this decision,” says Sister Lydia M. Peña, who runs the Sisters of Loretto’s philanthropic engagement effort. “In high school, I’m sure I thought about it but I was sure I was going to college.” Education, after all, was highly valued in the San Mateo, New Mexico, home where Peña grew up. She recalls her father, a rancher-businessman, promising that “I would get the same education as my brothers.”
For more than five decades Peña has been involved in education as a student or teacher. After graduating from Denver’s Loretto Heights College – the distinctive red rock landmark on South Federal – Peña went on to earn two Masters Degrees and a Ph.D. Until taking her current position with the Sisters of Loretto, she taught art history at Loretto Heights and Regis University. She is also a published author.
Sister Alicia Cuaron is the polar opposite of the chatty Peña. She is quiet, reserved and looks ready to spring a pop quiz or give a lecture. But the nationally known and respected educator knows her business and her business is teaching, empowerment and leadership, especially to young Latinas.
Cuaron did not enter the religious life until after turning fifty. It was not an option; she was married with a daughter. During this time, she was successful as a teacher and entrepreneur, marketing her own educational methods and lecturing across the country. And then came the calling.
“A lot of things changed, you know. I was no longer in charge of my daughter, I didn’t have a house, didn’t have a lot of things to take care of.” That is when her focus on spiritual development and mission to serve others took over. She became a nun, one whose primary goal is inspiring young Latinas to lead others.
Sisters Cuaron and Peña – and so many others like them – have had profound impacts on millions of young minds. Denver realtor and businessman Gene Lucero spent twelve years in Catholic schools and two years at Georgetown, the prestigious Jesuit university in Washington D.C. Much of his education was under the tutelage of nuns.
“I didn’t know anything else,” he says. “The majority of my teachers through sixth grade were nuns. They gave me a solid education and always seemed to be concerned about all the students.” But beyond teaching, Lucero says he remembers the nuns also having a strong sense of community.
Another product of a Catholic school education is Denver businessman, Ron Montoya. “I was educated by the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth,” says Montoya. The Denver business executive says nuns laid the foundation for the values he holds today. “I truly believe I received a great education but I also was taught the values and ethics I have tried to live by since.”
While nearly every student who ever sat before a teacher wearing a habit has a story or two or more – and Gonzales, Lucero and Montoya have their share – what resonates most are the memories of people who genuinely cared about them as students and the young men and women they were preparing for life.
For Gonzales, two nuns stand out. One was Sister Anna Lucia, the first Latina nun he ever met. “She was tough and made you get your work done,” he says. She was no-nonsense. The other was Sister Mary Helen “who really cared about us and demonstrated real compassion and love for all of us.” She later left the religious life to marry the late Paul Sandoval, one of Denver’s pioneer Latino political movers and shakers.
For Lucero, it is Sisters Anne Patrick and Monica Mary. “One was stern; you had to learn. Monica Mary was a little more creative and also taught us life lessons.”
“Without nuns,” says Gonzales, “there would be a giant hole in education.” They “filled a void in communities of color and poverty.” Not only in Denver, but across the country, Catholic schools were educational lighthouses. While lack of funds has forced the closure of many of these schools, many others have weathered the financial storms and not only continue to operate but continue to attract high quality students with the promise of a solid education.
Additionally, according to a two decades study conducted by Loyola University of New Orleans, students who attended regimented Catholic schools had “higher grades, better performance on standardized tests and higher rates of graduation and attendance at college.”
Peña’s formal education has been uniformly Catholic, from Albuquerque’s St. Vincent Academy to Regis, where she earned her doctorate. She says her education was the perfect complement to her decision to choose what turned out to be a rich and fulfilling religious life. There have been no regrets.
“I can almost say with certitude,” she says with a soft and thoughtful smile, “that had I married, given who I am as a person, as a woman, I would not have the richness that I have.”
Cuaron, whose previous career in education paved the way for what she has accomplished as a nun, says she has never felt more empowered or happier with her decision to become a nun. Achieving the American dream does not compare to “working with Latinas, helping them get educated, helping them get a career, (helping them) understand that we have value and showing that we have the potential to do more.”
People like Peña and Cuaron may slowly be disappearing from classrooms. But the contributions, the impact they and people like them have made to American education will stand the test of time.