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Accompanying Immigrants in Catholic Schools

This fall, Partnership Schools has been honored to be profiled by the Center for Migration Services in its podcast series “Accompanying Immigrants in the COVID-19 Era: How Catholic Ministries Are Transforming Successful Programs.” You can listen to or read their interview with Executive Director Jill Kafka and Sacred Heart Principal Abigail Akano here.

What is perhaps noteworthy about the conversation with CMS is that rather than describing significant programming that our schools adopt specifically to serve immigrant families, Jill and Abi are really just describing what we strive to do for every student and family we serve. The capacity Catholic schools have to benefit new American families comes from the same two origins as our capacity to serve anyone: from our nimbleness in responding to parent and community needs—such as remaining open for in-person education safely during COVID—and from the care and zeal that comes from knowing each of our students is a child of God, deserving of full flourishing, and worthy of our best effort.

I want them to expect this from us.


For example, Abi describes the high school application support Sacred Heart provided for Rose, a student whose family came from the Central African Republic and lived in a refugee shelter even as they were determined to sacrifice for the best education they could find for their children. As Abi recalls, “I remember sitting with Stephanie Reed, who is our high school advisor, and the father, as we were filling out [Rosa’s] high school paperwork. We got to do that before COVID. It was a process. We had to translate a lot of things for him. I speak a little French. Stephanie speaks Spanish. Rosa was there. Between all of us, we got the paperwork done.”

Yet as Jill also added, the New York high school application process is “complicated if you do speak English…What test do you take? Have you done the interviews? How do you bring your child to the school? How do you make sure they have done all the things they need to do to matriculate at the school? That takes a village.” It may take less translation to help some other families in the village navigate the high school admissions process, but that support is still crucial.

No doubt there is much more that we and all Catholic schools can do to live out our Biblical call—“You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:19). But where Catholic schools start this ministry is simple: by meeting families where they are. To the extent that we do that already, we are gratified, but humble. As Abi notes about the level of care families received during the spring’s particularly challenging days of COVID in the Bronx: “I want them to expect this from us. It shouldn’t feel as though we are going above and beyond. It should feel like this is what you are entitled to, and this is what you are getting.”

As groups like the University of Notre Dame’s Latino Enrollment Institute and the USCCB’s V Encuentro point out, the vitality of the Church and the full participation of new American families in its institutions are critically intertwined. Yet providing Catholic education for all families who want one, particularly in economically challenged communities, certainly isn’t getting any easier.

So the Partnership’s service of immigrant families starts with finding innovative ways to keep Catholic elementary schools thriving in neighborhoods where many new Americans land. But as Jill points out in the podcast, “Catholic schools in New York City have had a very long history of serving immigrant communities. There’s also been a long history of support to those Catholic schools.” Preserving Catholic schools in immigrant neighborhoods well into the future, then, is a deeply apt way to honor our past.

Immaculate Conception in the Bronx, our oldest school, was begun by German immigrants in 1854. Mt. Carmel Holy Rosary in East Harlem is still at the epicenter of what was New York’s largest Little Italy. Sacred Heart was Irish in 1912 when it was founded, then more Italian, and as Abi discusses in the CMS podcast, the school is becoming increasingly Dominican now.

We shall have to build the schoolhouse first and the church afterward.


Indeed, Catholic schools—particularly in New York—owe our origin story in large part to immigration, a reality that infuses our schools’ present with even richer significance. In the 1840s and 50s, as the Catholic population of New York exploded in size with waves of refugees from the Irish famine, the Catholic bishop of the city was crystal clear about priorities: “We shall have to build the schoolhouse first and the church afterward.”

This was no small stake in the ground for Bishop John Hughes to plant. Famine Irish were awash in needs. Crammed into substandard housing, disease was rampant; the death rate for Irish in the city was 21 percent in the 1840s, compared to 3 percent for everyone else. Economic hardship nagged the mostly rural-born city dwellers. Heaping doses of prejudice did not help: alcoholism, prostitution, and a host of other social ills that befell a few did little to ingratiate the many Irish with their new neighbors. To top it all off, many of the immigrants were poorly formed in Catholic religious practices and spirituality to begin with, since neither had been a big priority while people were starving in Ireland or trying to get a foothold in a new country. So prioritizing schools over churches—or over any of the other needs Bishop Hughes could have justifiably picked—was a very specific, gutsy choice.

Bishop Hughes prioritized schools because he knew that education and formation of children was the single most important lever for advancing an entire community. It didn’t come from a warm, fuzzy place—after all, Bishop Hughes’ nickname was “Dagger John,” and his fierceness earned that moniker time and again. While much has changed since the days he led the embattled Irish Catholics of New York, one thing remains true: education and formation of children is still the single most important lever for advancing our communities—and renewing us all.