This blog deals with the Catholic schools, for the most part, in the Milwaukee Archdiocese…schools in the Milwaukee, Racine, Kenosha, Sheboygan, Washington, Dodge, Ozaukee, Walworth, Waukesha and Fond du Lac counties. There are several charts to view to hopefully illustrate my research.
My story starts in the 1950’s by keying in on the Milwaukee Archdiocese. In 1957 the Milwaukee Archdiocese had 24 high schools, four colleges and 198 grade schools as they served over 100,000 students. Across America, about 85% of grade school and high school students in private schools attended Catholic schools. In Wisconsin the percentage was about 87% and in Milwaukee it was around 91%. Many of those Catholic schools would close or merge in the 1960’s and 1970’s.
If you look back on my blog about the 1949 Racine St. Catherine’s football team, you can count among their eight opponents seven schools in the Milwaukee Catholic
St. Catherine’s (Of course)
St. John’s Cathedral
Milwaukee Pius XI
Milwaukee Don Bosco
Milwaukee Notre Dame
Today, only St. Catherine’s, Marquette, Messmer and Pius still exist. Don Bosco merged with Pio Nono and became Thomas More (Now Saint Thomas More). St. John’s and Notre Dame closed.
As I’ve mentioned, beside the above Milwaukee Catholic Conference schools there were also:
Burlington St. Mary’s (Now Catholic Central.
St. John in Rubicon
Milwaukee St. Benedict Moor
Milwaukee Divine Savior
Milwaukee Holy Angles (Now merged with Divine Savior)
Milwaukee Divine Savior Convent
Milwaukee St. Joan Antida
Whitefish Bay Dominican
Fond du Lac St. Mary’s Springs
Fond du Lac St. Agnes
Milwaukee St. Joseph
Milwaukee Mercy Academy
Sorrowful Mother Convent
Kenosha St. Joseph
Sturtevant St. Bonaventure
In the 1950's and 1960’s Whitefish Bay Dominican, Kenosha St. Joseph and Waukesha Memorial would play football and join the Catholic Conference. St. Francis Pio Nono, a school that first played football in 1922 and then closed in 1941 reopened in 1965 and played Catholic Conference football until it merged with Milwaukee Don Bosco. Burlington St. Mary’s and Fond du Lac St. Mary’s Springs also had teams with Springs part of the then Fox River Valley Catholic Conference that included De Pere Pennings, Appleton Xavier, Green Bay Premontre, Menasha St. Mary, Oshkosh Lourdes, Little Chute St. John and Marinette Catholic. Burlington St. Mary’s played in the Southeastern Badger Conference, one that included Kettle Moraine, Waterford, Pewaukee, Salem Central and Arrowhead.
This is not meant to be a religious discussion, but a little Catholic history is needed to understand the changes. A feeling that Catholics needed to send their children had prevailed since the 1884 Third Plenary Council of Baltimore, a meeting between American Bishops. That meeting began the movement to open many Catholic schools to meet the needs of the families that attended the local church. In 1890 only about 69% of children that were school age attended classes, averaging only about 86 days per year in attendance but only about 3.5% graduated. Not every child in America were like the kids in TV series "Little House on the Prairie who seemed to always be attending school on a regular basis. Did you ever see an old Western movie where someone was asked to “make their mark” on a legal paper (Usually just an X). Or have you viewed the Tom Hanks movie “News of the World” in which Hanks travels around the southwest reading the latest newspaper stories to those who can’t read? Life was like that in the 1800’s and early 1900’s. The Catholic church saw a need to educate the population and they set about helping to do so. And they did it well.
Fast forward and in 1959 Pope St. John XXIII called for a gathering to modernize, to update the church. There were many changes that came out of Vatican II (1962-65), some the members liked and some that they did not. One of those changes was the direction of Catholic education. Questions were raised in and out of the church at this time as to the need for Catholic schools to compete with the public school system. With the reduction of men and women entering the Catholic religious life there was less and less support for maintaining the schools. There were also economic problems as well as populations moving out of the city of Milwaukee to the suburbs. Sustaining the schools became very difficult as well without new or updated facilities.
Check out below, Chart #1 of Milwaukee Area Catholic football playing schools and their enrollment:
The chart only includes schools that played football, but you can see the sharp decrease over the years in attendance. Francis Jordan closed in 1969, Don Bosco merged with Pio Nono in 1972 and became Thomas More (Now St. Thomas More) and St. John’s Cathedral closed in 1975. All three, Don Bosco, Cathedral and Francis Jordan needed new facilities. Pio Nono, having the space so Don Bosco, with a larger attendance, moved to the St. Francis school building. Notre Dame and Don Bosco were only a few blocks from each other and when Bosco moved four miles to the south Notre Dame gained a few students who didn’t want to travel that far. But, as mentioned previously, the finances were too much for that high school to continue.
Chart #2…Catholic Conference 1966 standings...
NOTE: The 1966 season for St. John’s Cathedral (7-0-1 overall) was their best since 1937 (4-1-1).
Many of the Catholic high schools at this time were boys or girls only and while some merged with other similar schools, many also closed. These were mainly neighborhood schools and as church attendance waned, so did sending students to the Catholic schools. This paralleled a growth of public schools as I mentioned in other blogs about Milwaukee high schools. Milwaukee public schools had a large growth spurt in the 1960’s and 1970’s to accommodate new students.
By 1970 the conference had changed with Francis Jordan and Notre Dame dropping football as they tried to cut costs or closed. Cathedral had a poor record of winning only eight games in the eight years between 1967-74. After the 1970 season they attempted to withdraw from the Catholic Conference to play an independent schedule but that was disallowed by the conference. In 1928 the state Catholic schools formed the WCIAA, the Wisconsin Catholic Interscholastic Athletic Association, to control school sports like the WIAA for the public schools. The WCIAA was re-formatted in 1968 into the WISAA, the Wisconsin Independent Schools Athletic Association to include all parochial, non-Catholic schools like Milwaukee Lutheran, Wisconsin Lutheran. Milwaukee University School, Wayland Academy, Brookfield Academy, Winnebago Lutheran, Fox Valley Lutheran, Racine Lutheran, Watertown Prep and Delafield St. John’s Military Academy, to name a few.
If you look below at the next chart, #3 (1970 Catholic Conference final standings), and compare the list of schools to chart #1 you will see that Francis Jordan closed in 1968. For some reason the Archdiocese did not post any student numbers for St. John’s Cathedral in the 1974 attendance reporting.
Chart #4, 1974 conference standings, has three items of note: First, notice the conference name change from the Catholic to the Metro. 1973 was the final year of the Catholic Conference. Second, this was Cathedral’s final season and finally, as the conference name changed there was an addition of a non-Catholic school to the group…that being Milwaukee Lutheran.
While I have concentrated on Milwaukee area Catholic schools, take a look at a chart that I updated from a year 2000 story by Cliff Christl of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel with current WIAA information. Cliff’s story concerned the shutting down of the WISAA and those schools joining the public schools to grow a larger WIAA.
Chart #5, from the Cliff Christl story covered not only Milwaukee area schools but statewide as you can see.
Note the collapse of some of the outer-Milwaukee area schools in attendance. Because of these numbers some schools have had to co-op or revert to 8-player football.
But numbers don’t always mean success. Take Pius XI for example. The school had a huge student population for many years and a few good teams. In the 44-years of the Catholic football conference the Popes only won the conference title six times. They were seldom in the mix for the conference title. In the end, since the private schools joining the WIAA. Except for 2006, 2013 and the 2020 season that had no championships due to the COVID pandemic there has been at least one private school and often three or four schools in the state finals each year. While many championships have been in the lower divisions, larger schools like Milwaukee Marquette, Fox Valley Lutheran, Green Bay Notre Dame and Wisconsin Lutheran have come out on top. In the middle to lower divisions Catholic Memorial has been a regular to the finals and of course Burlington Central Catholic, Eau Claire Regis and the perennial performer, Fond du Lac St. Mary’s Springs have proven that having huge numbers in the school doesn’t mean that you can’t be successful.
Now sometimes having the right number of players is needed to compete to cover for injuries but as mentioned in a previous blog, a school like Wausau Newman can fair very well in 8-player football.
It can't be denied that while private school's lost attendance they lost talented athletes. So, in the end, where did all the students go as schools shut down and consolidated? They of course moved out of the area and some small high schools like Hartland Arrowhead, Muskego and Kettle Moraine ballooned in attendance over the years. Like schools in the Milwaukee Public system the suburbs had to exp and their facilities to handle the growth. But as school populations dropped drastically in some Milwaukee Public Schools (Like Washington, a school that once had 2,400 students but now has only about 600 attending) the schools have had to contend with a lack of interest in the sport, competition with soccer and the challenges of students/players to meet academic standards. Also, some families left for alternative Christian churches and their schools or burgeoning private charters. Uniquely, with the popularity of School Choice in Wisconsin, Catholic schools may have been shielded from further loss in numbers as many non-Catholic families have opted for a private education for their children, regardless of the religious nature of the school.
Soon I will cover Milwaukee Don Bosco’s rise in the 1960’s with a bit more about their coach Jim Haluska.