Non-Catholic in a Catholic School: Forming New Apostles

Parochial schools introduce growing number to the faith.

About 66% of students at Catholic Inner-city Schools Education (CISE)’s 10 Cincinnati elementary schools are not Catholic, and their families appreciate the values-based education.
About 66% of students at Catholic Inner-city Schools Education (CISE)’s 10 Cincinnati elementary schools are not Catholic, and their families appreciate the values-based education. (photo: Courtesy of CISE)

When international student Chelsea Su began studying at Academy of the Holy Family in Baltic, Connecticut, in 2016 as a high-school freshman, she had never seen a religious sister and didn’t understand why anyone would devote much time to spirituality or rely on Jesus. 

Su’s family hadn’t practiced a religion while she was growing up in Shenzhen, China, but the now-22-year-old soon found peace in the chapel of the Catholic secondary day and boarding school for young women run by the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady, Mother of the Church.

“I could just sit and think,” she said. “No matter what’s going on outside, it’s very quiet inside. It felt like I could just pour my heart out there.” 

“It was kind of a good outlet for me because it was pretty scary coming to this country and I couldn’t see my parents,” recalled Su, who starts graduate school at the University of Michigan this fall. 

From her experience in the chapel and learning about Catholicism in class, Su found herself wanting what her fellow Catholic students had. After receiving instruction, she entered the Church at the end of her freshman year. Su is among a growing number of non-Catholic students who are studying in Catholic schools. Many continue to identify with their own faith, but some, including Su and Cardinal Wilton Gregory of the Washington Archdiocese, decide to convert to the Catholic faith they learn about, not only in class but in many aspects of school life. 

As Catholic schools welcome and meet the needs of non-Catholic students, they are planting seeds of faith through their Catholic identity and values, which permeate students’ experience, Catholic school leaders say. During the 2022-2023 school year, 22% of enrolled students at U.S. Catholic elementary and secondary schools were not Catholic, compared with 2.7% in 1970, according to data from the Leesburg, Virginia-based National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA), which provides professional development, formation, leadership and advocacy to Catholic schools. 

Catholic schools saw enrollment increases during the COVID-19 pandemic, as families, including non-Catholic and non-practicing Catholic families, moved their children to Catholic schools that were open when public schools closed. 

Non-Catholics also choose Catholic education for their children because of the schools’ high academic standards. But, above all, many see them as safer than public schools, perhaps because they are usually smaller and values and discipline are taught, according to Catholic educators. “There are a lot of families who are coming to Catholic school because it feels safe … and they want their kids in that environment,” said Angela Pohlen, executive director of the Catholic Academy of Bridgeport, Connecticut, which is comprised of four elementary schools in the Diocese of Bridgeport. Because families choose to come to Catholic schools, the opportunity for evangelism is real, she said. 

Families, including non-Catholics, are attracted to Catholic schools because of these perceptions, said Jose Gonzalez, senior director of professional development at the Manchester, New Hampshire-based Sophia Institute for Teachers, which provides materials and programs to renew and rebuild Catholic culture. 

These factors, along with financial aid and scholarship opportunities, also draw non-Catholic families in underserved urban communities to what are sometimes referred to as Catholic “mission schools,” where 60% or more of students may not be Catholic and many receive some type of assistance. The majority of non-Catholic students in Catholic schools are Protestant, including evangelical, Baptist, Methodist or Episcopal, while some Latino families may belong to Pentecostal or nondenominational churches, said Catholic school leaders interviewed for this article. About 66% of students at Catholic Inner-city Schools Education (CISE)’s 10 Cincinnati elementary schools are not Catholic, and 91% of their families are below the poverty line, said Cate O’Brien, director of school programs, who added that 70% of their students later attend Catholic high schools for which CISE offers scholarships.

Catholic schools have a “beautiful opportunity” through faculty and staff to model the faith for non-Catholic students, Pohlen said. 

Students at the Catholic Academy of Bridgeport are often the ones who tell their parents they want to be baptized, she said, adding that 20 students at the academy’s St. Anne campus were baptized during the past academic year. About 40% of the academy’s 900 students on its four campuses are not Catholic, which aligns with Bridgeport’s demographics, she said. 

Alice Wang, of Beijing, said she and her family did not practice a religion when she was growing up but that her grandmother sometimes attends Christian house prayer meetings in China. 

Arriving at Holy Family Academy in 2017, the year after Su, Wang learned about prayer while taking a sacred Scripture class.

“I didn’t know how exactly to pray at that time, but I just did some talking with God or self-reflection at night, and I felt really peaceful and calm inside my heart,” said Wang, now 21, who is studying at New York University. 

Along with learning about prayer, Wang had conversations about Catholicism with Su and other students and decided to enter the Church after her sophomore year. Su served as her godmother. 

Both Wang and Su plan to return to China after finishing their education, and each has identified a church they can attend in their respective cities. In the past eight years, two other Holy Family Academy students have received sacraments of baptism, confirmation and reconciliation, said Sister M. Kateri, a member of the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady, Mother of the Church, who teaches religion and manages admissions at the academy. Last year, 13 of the 32 students were foreign, including from counties in Africa, Latin America and Asia, and about 10 come from different faith backgrounds, she said. 

“All these young people have this hunger inside of them for something more,” Sister Kateri said. “We can kind of feed that fire and realize that it’s God that they’re really seeking, and he’s already seeking them out and loving them.” 

As they introduce non-Catholic students to Catholicism, religion teachers are also, to an extent, teaching the faith to Catholic students whose families aren’t practicing the faith, Gonzalez said.

“A lot of Catholic schools are experiencing that [the] non-Catholic student that’s walking in the building is just as lost to the ‘Catholic’ things like Mass, as some of their ‘Catholic’ students who are unchurched and not practicing,” he said. 

In welcoming students to the truth of the faith, schools should present it as an invitation, he added. 

Catholic schools should teach religion with the same gravitas as their other subjects and should inform parents when enrolling the faith aspects that will be taught, Pohlen said. It’s possible to respect non-Catholic students’ faith and perspectives without “diluting” the Catholic faith, she said.

As O’Brien said, “The teachers … have figured out how to make their faith evident to kids who may not be practicing it at all.”

Jenna Gorman, 34, said many of her middle-school religion students at the CISE school St. Francis Seraph in Cincinnati are not Catholic. More are Baptist or another Christian denomination. She teaches all her students the same material but sometimes breaks it down more for non-Catholic students, who often have a lot of questions. “They have insightful questions,” she said. “They’re really interested, because, for a lot of them, this is their first time hearing these [Bible] stories.” Parents appreciate the faith-based instruction even if they’re not Catholic, Gorman emphasized. 

Along with studying tenets of the faith, non-Catholic students learn values and lessons on how to treat others, and they like to pray, she said.

As a kindergartner from a Baptist family starting at Our Mother of Sorrows parish school in Cincinnati, Frances Dudley remembers the first time she entered the parish’s church (both the school and church have since closed). “That was my first time going into the Catholic church, and it was huge,” said Dudley, now 26 and a CISE administrative assistant for high schools. Enrolled in Catholic school by her mother, who appreciated the schools’ discipline, Dudley went on to graduate from both a Catholic grade school and high school. 

Learning the names of the Catholic archbishops and popes in Catholic school may not be the most useful knowledge to her now that she is youth director at her Baptist church, she said, but she said what she learned about prayer has stayed with her — and now her son and daughter attend another Cincinnati CISE school.