DSHA President Ellen S. Bartel

History is filled with surprises. But, sometimes its biggest shockers are the stories it overlooks, especially those affecting millions of Americans.

A case in point: the impact nuns have had on our nation’s development. Between 1860 and 1960, Catholic sisters in America built the largest private school system in the world. At its peak, they educated more than 5 million American children yearly — one out of eight children in America. Who knew?

Like many Catholics, I have grateful memories of the nuns who taught in my grade school. But I didn’t fully realize the deep impact sisters made on America’s development until recently.

I discovered this story during our celebration this year of the 125th anniversary of Divine Savior Holy Angels, a Catholic all-girls high school where I’ve been president for nearly 20 years.  A recently published history of our school (Valiant Women, by Frank Miller) takes a highly contextual look at our past. It makes for fascinating reading — especially concerning the impact Catholic sisters have had.

Holy Angels Academy, located at 12th and Kilbourn, was Milwaukee’s first Catholic all-girls high school and operated from 1892 to 1970. It was one of nearly 200 Midwestern schools operated by the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or BVMs, as they were better known.

DSHA traces its roots to two orders of Catholic women religious — the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (better known as BVMs), who founded Holy Angels Academy in 1892, and the Sisters of the Divine Savior, or Salvatorians, who founded Divine Savior High School in 1926. These two all-girls schools joined forces in 1970 and became Divine Savior Holy Angels, sponsored by the Sisters of the Divine Savior.

DSHA is a unique example of the rich educational legacy of Catholic sisters in America. In a nutshell, here’s the little known story of their impact.

It begins in the early 1800s, when many newly formed women’s religious orders in Europe joined the floodtide of European immigrants coming to America. By 1900, some 100,000 European sisters had arrived. In Europe, sisters tended to live contemplative lives. Here, they rolled up their sleeves and tackled major problems facing the nation’s Catholics. Chief among these was education.

Over time, sisters built thousands of parish schools. By 1900, they enrolled more than one million students, according to Parish School: American Catholic Parochial Education from Colonial Times to the Present, by Timothy Walch (1996, Crossroad Publishing Company). By 1960 that number had jumped to 5 million. Ninety percent of these children were taught by sisters.

DSHA is a unique example of their work.

When the BVM sisters opened Holy Angels Academy in 1892, it offered grades one through 12, even admitting a few boys its first year. It grew rapidly, and by 1922 the BVMs had narrowed the school’s focus to high school girls. It was with that group that they excelled.

A rigorous curriculum included heavy doses of religion, science, math, English and history. Co-curricular activities ranging from journalism to theatre involved most students, giving them confidence-building opportunities to excel and take charge. By 1950 two-thirds of Holy Angels graduates were going on to college.

Divine Savior High School followed a different path to excellence. It began as a high school for Salvatorian “preps” — high school-age women planning on joining the Sisters of the Divine Savior.

In 1948 the school began to accept lay students. Its rapid growth inspired the Salvatorian sisters to move from their motherhouse at 35th and Center to 100th and Capitol, then on the outskirts of town. There, the school tripled in size during its first five years. It, too, challenged its students with a demanding curriculum.

Co-curricular activities from athletics to journalism involved most students, again providing girls opportunities to excel.

It surprises many to learn that, during this era, the Catholic Church was by far the nation’s largest sponsor of all-girls education. Of the more than 1,100 all-girls high schools operating in the U.S. in 1960, more than a third were operated by sisters, according to Where Girls Come First: The Rise, Fall and Surprising Revival of Girls Schools, by Ilana DeBare (Penguin, 2004).

Researchers have begun to document what the sisters who ran these girls schools seem to have known all along. Graduates of all-girls high schools have greater confidence as learners, are more likely to take on leadership positions and have higher percentages of graduates entering science and technology fields.

Holy Angels and Divine Savior were two of the roughly 400 Catholic girls schools in America in 1960. At that time Milwaukee had six strong girls schools — all operated by Catholic women religious orders.

In the late 60s through the 80s, the number of sisters in American Catholic religious orders fell drastically.  The vast network of Catholic schools — built and sustained for so many years on the talent and dedication of sisters — lost its workforce.

Among the hardest hit by the change were Catholic all-girls high schools.  Squeezed between falling enrollments and rising costs, their numbers declined by 60 percent by 2000. When Holy Angels decided to close in 1970, parents there and at Divine Savior came up with a unique solution to the financial challenges they faced: they affiliated.

Bringing together two schools that had become rivals wasn’t easy. But both orders of sisters shared a deep commitment to developing young women of faith, heart and intellect. By combining their schools, they gave the girls of tomorrow a better chance to reap the benefits of an all-girls Catholic education.

Today DSHA relies on lay leadership and staff, but we carry on the spirit of the sisters who created us. We focus on developing believers, critical thinkers, leaders and communicators, just as our founders did. Like them, we draw students from every corner of our community, and today 27 percent of our students are young women of color. The tradition of a rigorous curriculum is stronger than ever, enabling students to earn an average ACT score of 27.2, one of the highest averages in the state. The emphasis on faith formation continues, and our students contribute more than 22,000 hours of community service annually. All graduates continue to college and beyond.

Today, DSHA has more than 15,000 alumnae. Each is a testament to the pioneering sisters who, more than a century ago, took up the cause of educating America’s young Catholics.

Thank you, sisters. May your story long be honored — and remembered.