History and Development

of the Religion in Life Curriculum

Dr. Edward A. Fitzpatrick

“Soon after I came to Marquette University in 1924 as a professor of education I felt that the education department should devote its energy to the supreme task of Catholic education: religious education on the elementary school level.”

Until the early 20th Century, most religious intruction tended to center around rote memorization of the questions and answers of the Catechism.  Other resources for children betrayed a lack of understanding of the child mind and addressed young people in a condescending, saccharine manner.  After the catastrophic loss of faith that came in the wake of WWI, a renewal was needed.

It was Edward Fitzpatrick (1884-1960) who would become the nerve center for the hive of activity that eventually led to the creation of the Religion in Life Curriculum.  With a doctorate in Education and many years of experience teaching in the New York City public schools, he brought a great deal of expertise in the latest and most effective methods of pedagogy.

The Munich Method

“...Whatever you narrate, narrate it in such a manner that he to whom you are discoursing on hearing may believe, on believing may hope, on hoping may love.” (St. Augustine, De Catechizandus Rudibus.)

Inspired by Our Lord’s own teaching using parables, and the methods described by St. Augustine in De Catechizandus Rudibus, early 20th century German educators Dr. H. Stieglitz and Rev. Michael Gatterer, S.J. (above) established a more effective method of teaching the Catechism.

Later called the Munich Method, it sought to instill the lessons of the Catechism by first appealing to the senses and the imagination of the child through storytelling, pictures, music or activity.  By appealing to these natural methods of learning, the child more easily absorbs the religious truth in the lesson and can assimilate it into his own life. The lesson then ends, rather than beginning, with the formula as presented in the Catechism.

This focus on storytelling as an effective means of guiding the child toward religious truth can be seen in the works of Mother Mary Loyola, which were being written during this same period, though it is impossible to know whether she was influenced by, or exerted influence upon, the proponents of this method.

The Munich Method found its way to America through the works of Rev. Joseph J. Baierl (The Creed Explained, etc.) and Rev. George Dennerle (Leading the Little Ones to Christ).  These works in turn had a great deal of influence on the educators who would form Edward Fitzpatrick’s Catechetical Institute of Marquette University…

The Catechetical Institute of Marquette University

“The problems were studied, books were collected, the periodicals were read, and the neglect of the subject in the light of both the need and the opportunity was a revelation. A library that ultimately became the Library of the Catechetical Institute of Marquette University was collected...” (Edward Fitzpatrick in the Journal of Religious Instruction.)

From roughly 1924 to 1928, Fitzpatrick assembled a team, beginning with members of the School of Education at Marquette, then extending to several groups of teaching Sisters, who brought their practical classroom experience.

The spark that lit the fire came in the form of a request from Rev. Daniel Cunningham, Superintendent of Schools for the Archdiocese of Chicago under Cardinal Mundelein…

Cardinal George Mundelein

“More uniformity in textbooks, curriculum, and methods of instruction existed among the schools of a single religious order, even when spread over the entire country, than among the schools of different parishes within Chicago.” (James Sanders, Education of an Urban Minority.)

Upon his accession as Archbishop of Chicago in 1915, Mundelein faced numerous challenges, one of which was unifying a large urban population comprised of quarrelsome ethnic leagues.  Added to this difficulty was the panoply of sisters from different religious orders who taught in the various Parish schools throughout the Archdiocese.

While their “worthy rivalry and competition” tended to uphold standards, Mundelein saw that the administration of a healthy Parochial school system required a unified vision.  His appointment of Daniel F. Cunningham (1894-1988) as Superintendent of Schools in 1927 led to their growth into one of the largest and most exemplary system in the world.

Rev. Daniel F. Cunningham

“When a community supervisor of one of the larger religious communities, who was a member of the curriculum committee, came for help and the diocesan superintendant reinforced the request, we gladly undertook the work for which we were preparing.” (Edward Fitzpatrick in the Journal of Religious Instruction.)

What made the gregarious Irishman Cunningham successful where his predecessors had failed might be attributed to his having “a bit of the Blarney.”  He excelled at public relations and made this the cornerstone of his tenure, which lasted until his retirement in 1957.

In pursuing a unified curriculum for the Archdiocesan schools, then, Cunningham sought the help of Fitzpatrick and his Institute.  And after two years of study, a full outline of this curriculum was published in installments in the Catholic School Journal in 1930.  (This outline would later be published separately as A Curriculum in Religion.)

The School Sisters of Notre Dame

“The main problem in the construction of a curriculum is to translate a single, definite, unmistakable aim...into a series of school and life activities that...lead [the student] on through his own activity...to that highest development of man which we call Christlike.” (from the Introduction of A Curriculum in Religion.)

It was during this period, in 1929, that Edward Fitzpatrick took on the role of president of Mount Mary College in Milwaukee, a small women’s college run by the School Sisters of Notre Dame.  Many of the sisters there, as well as those at the St. Paul Diocesan Teachers College, and at SS. Peter and Paul School in Mankato, Minnesota, became indispensable in the development and testing of the curriculum.

In particular, Sister Mary Agnesine, S.S.N.D., a member of the faculty at St. Paul, was instrumental in developing the curriculum and textbooks for the 3rd, 4th and 5th grades, as well as facilitating the classroom testing of the various elements.  Many rounds of revisions were made, based on the teacher’s critiques, until each component was found to be satisfactory.

Sister Mary Bartholomew, O.S.F.

“[This series] definitely set out to make teaching religion a highway to Heaven. It did this by making religion a living thing. That is the reason the curriculum is called the “Religion-in-Life Curriculum,” and the texts are called the “Highway to Heaven Series.” The supernatural end was always dominant.” (Edward Fitzpatrick in the Journal of Religious Instruction.)

The School Sisters of Notre Dame were not the only Religious involved in creating the curriculum and its materials.  Many priests who were teaching in seminaries, parishes and universities were consulted to ensure the doctrinal orthodoxy of the materials. Several other orders of teaching sisters were also involved, including the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi in Milwaukee.

Together the team worked to “flesh out” the curriculum from its basic outline down to its classroom details.  Always the needs of the curriculum informed the building of the textbooks, not the reverse.  The first of the textbooks to be completed in 1931 was the First Grade text, The Book of the Holy Child, by Sister Mary Bartholomew, O.S.F.

William George Bruce

“Even excellent textbooks do not teach themselves, so every aid is provided for the teacher to make these textbooks instruments in developing a living faith and a Christian character. In short, the plan provides both for the teacher as well as for the pupil.” (Edward Fitzpatrick in the Journal of Religious Instruction.)

Nothing was overlooked in the planning of the series.  While the textbooks served as the cornerstone, these were built to fit the curriculum, which sought to provide every possible help to the teacher in making the textbooks truly effective.  The organization of the lessons with supplementary materials and activities–and even teaching methods and devices–were all laid out in the Teachers Plan Book and Manual for each grade.

Even the illustrations were designed especially to accompany each textbook, using a simplified yet beautiful style that represents the story without becoming overly complicated.

As each textbook and manual were completed, they were published by the Bruce Publishing Company, founded in 1891 by prominent Milwaukee Catholic William George Bruce (1856-1949).


“There remains to be accomplished the collection of religious poems in convenient form for teachers and pupils in intermediate grades and the junior high school years, and a text of the Gospel story for an appreciative rounding out of the whole curriculum in the eighth grade.” (Edward Fitzpatrick in the Journal of Religious Instruction.)

The sixth grade textbook on the Mass was finally published in 1936 after three manuscripts had been rejected. 

Sadly, after this, no further work on the curriculum was ever published.  We see from the quote above that two collections of poetry had been planned, along with a capstone for the series based on the Gospels–but neither these, nor any Curriculum Manuals for 6th through 8th grade ever made it into print.  We have not discovered when the work actually ceased, nor why, though it is worth pointing out that the achievement of creating this series in the midst of the Great Depression is truly amazing.

Cardinal Mundelein died in 1939 and was replaced by Milwaukee’s Archbishop Samuel Stritch (pictured above), who incidentally had given many of the books in the series their imprimaturs. 

Copies of each of the textbooks and teachers manuals eventually found their way onto the shelves of the library at the University of St. Mary of the Lake (better known as Mundelein Seminary, after its founder, and without whom this curriculum might never have existed).  And it was when that complete and pristine set came to be discarded and offered for sale, that we rediscovered it entirely by accident, and are now able to share it with you.

Learn More

Learn how you can implement the Religion in Life Curriculum in your home or school.

Learn about the components of the Curriculum and how they work together.

Find resources designed to accompany each grade level.