Appearing in the 1972 Los Angeles Religious Education Congress Guidebook



Penny Gilpin, CCD Historian

THE CONFRATERNITY OF CHRISTIAN DOCTRINE – that unique, vital organization with the long name – is rich in historical background. Formal facts and statistical data are warmed by the human efforts of thousands of men and women whose talents, sacrifices and overwhelming dedication have made the CCD what it is today. The tomorrows of Confraternity will depend in large measure on contemporary workers and their successors, and they will face different problems and challenges. Yet they can ever find hope and inspiration in the firm foundation, vision and courage which are their heritage.

The CCD has its roots in Italy. There, during the 16th century, two reformations – one Catholic, the other Protestant – made Church authorities aware of the desperate need to educate the people in matters of the Faith. To counteract the widespread ignorance, Castellino de Castello established "schools of Christian Doctrine" in 1536, under the direction of Charles Borromeo, the Archbishop of Milan. In 1556, during the Council of Trent, a decree was issued that instruction in Christian Doctrine should henceforth be given on Sundays and festivals (feast days) throughout the year.

In 1560, a layman, Marco de Sadis-Gusani – a hatmaker from Milan who had evidently seen and possibly even worked in the schools of Christian Doctrine – went to Rome. There, with the support and help of a local priest, he founded the Society of Christian Doctrine. Its purpose was clearly defined: to "round up" children from the streets of Rome and teach them the Holy Faith. Within ten years, over 40,000 boys and girls had attended classes wherever space could be found – private homes, gardens, churches, even in the open air when weather permitted. The Society – approved by the reigning Pontiff, Pope Pius IV  – prospered and was finally divided into two segments. On the one hand were the priest instructors who formed into several different religious orders which would eventually be called "the Teaching Orders." The second segment was the laity, who continued to teach under the new title of Confraternity of Christian Doctrine.


In 1571 the Confraternity was recognized by Pope Pius IV, who recommended its establishment in every parish. Pope Paul V made the society into an Arch-confraternity in 1607, thereby gaining special indulgences for CCD members whose names were inscribed in parish records. Soon the work of the Confraternity was spreading beyond Italy, to Ireland, Germany and France. It was Pope St. Pius X, however, who brought about universal recognition and prestige, when he decreed in his encyclical "Aceerbo Nimis" in 1905 that "in each and every parish the society known as the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine is to be canonically established." His further approval was evident when he permitted very young children to receive Communion if they proved to be sufficiently instructed in their Faith, a task he entrusted to the CCD.


The above are only a few highlights of the early days of the CCD. The program has spread (it has been found in Europe, Africa, Australia and India, to mention but a few areas where adult volunteers are trained to give religious instruction to children). Yet it has somehow come to be identified most generally with the United States, where the pioneer spirit of the "land of the free" has adapted itself generously to this important apostolate.

CCD in North America

The first CCD establishment in the nation was in New York City in 1901. Pittsburgh was second, with a 1907 canonical establishment. Brooklyn, which had the nation's largest known Catholic population at the time (over 1 million), and an estimated 70,000 Catholic children in public schools, adopted the CCD program in 1921. All three were established primarily to help the many immigrant families, where illiteracy, a new language to be learned, poverty, proselytizing, and the insecurity of being in a new land led thousands of people to neglect their Faith. Not too much organizing was done if available records are any indication, and eventually the programs were reorganized.

The fourth Confraternity established in the nation was in Los Angeles. In the words of a priest writing about this establishment, "CCD really started to boom!"

The Confraternity of Christian Doctrine in Los Angeles

In the year 1918 the diocese of Los Angeles stretched from Monterey on the north to San Diego on the south. It was an area of great distances and many contrasts; a land rapidly filling with thousands of newcomers who hoped that golden Southern California might indeed be the promised land. Unhappily, milk and honey were denied the majority of them, who were inexperienced in city ways. Among the new settlers were some 98,000 Mexicans (by 1923 this number rose to an estimated 150,000 in Los Angeles County alone.) There were also around 10,000 Italians, 8,000 Croatians, and 28 other nationalities in lesser numbers who had come to seek a living in the agricultural, mining and industrial centers of this growing city and its environs.

Miss Verona Spellmire was a young woman who taught at Utah Street Public School. Evenings and weekends found her doing volunteer social work at the Brownson House Settlement. (This settlement was an outgrowth of the first Los Angeles Catholic Center – El Hogar Feliz, or "The Happy House" – established by two other laywomen, Katherine and Adelaide Rowan, in 1897.)

From her work at the school and settlement house, Miss Spellmire became increasingly aware that there were thousands of the immigrant children and adults who lacked even basic knowledge of their Holy Faith. Local clergy could not assist; at that time there was only Brownson House and one small church to serve the needs of the vast numbers of humanity.

Seeking a solution to the problem, Verona's imagination was fired by an article in Our Sunday Visitor concerning the lay volunteers in Pittsburgh's Missionary Confraternity program, who traveled 60 miles or more each weekend to give religious instruction in isolated mining areas. Why, she envisioned, wouldn't dedicated local people be willing to go across the city to teach in the immigrant areas?

In early 1919, Verona approached Reverend William Corr, new Director of the Bureau of Catholic Charities, with her ideas. With his help and that of 10 of her women friends, Miss Spellmire held the first classes of religion in the summer of 1919 at Simon's Brickyard, an immigrant settlement just outside East Los Angeles. But she realized that organization and many volunteers were needed.

In 1922, she appealed to the new Catholic Charities Director, Reverend Robert E. Lucey (who later became Archbishop of San Antonio). Through his intercession with Bishop John J. Cantwell, the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine was officially established in the diocese on March 11, 1922 at Immaculate Conception Church. The die was cast. What followed was history indeed!

The Los Angeles Confraternity of Christian Doctrine has many "firsts" to its credit, and to the credit of its five Directors and their dedicated laity: They were the first to create parish Executive Boards; first model lesson books; first graded texts for pupils and teachers; first summer schools of religion – to name but a few. When the National Confraternity office was established in Washington, D.C., it was modeled after the Los Angeles CCD office. Its annual Congress, largest in the nation, is another first that has received favorable comment from educators and from dedicated laity without whom the Confraternity could not exist. From very small beginnings, student enrollment now exceeds 221,000 per year, according to June 1971 statistics. Training courses, workshops and seminars are planned for and offered to all parishes upon request to the Archdiocesan Office. The most recent addition to these courses covers the use of Audio-Visuals for all facets of Confraternity programming.

Looking Ahead

Today the Confraternity in the nation is beginning to come into its own. It takes its place in the Church as a maturing organization of great ability and vision, a society of religious and laity banded together in a common goal: to instill in human beings from preschool to adulthood the message of Christ in all its fullness. (The percentage of laity in the CCD has been and always shall be around 80 percent of the total membership; and this is as it should be, for the Confraternity is a lay apostleship.)

One of the unique facts about CCD is that – in addition to all its students – members are volunteers. They come from every station in life, every race and age, offering their talents and time in God's vineyards. They fill countless roles, from driver to craft maker; teacher to census taker. Those who cannot actively assist become associate (praying) members.

The challenges in the field of Religious Education are many, and the Confraternity is proving itself equal to the task. Priests and people not familiar with CCD standards are re-examining and re-evaluating current methods which –based on solid past experience – prove fruitful. On every level (national, diocesan and parish), there are certain requisites which must be met and put into practice in a spirit of true Christian apostleship, if the Confraternity is to prove truly fruitful. These requisites are: strong organization, active executive boards, training courses, annual refresher seminars in all CCD divisions, constant evaluation and improvement of texts, methods and audio-visual materials. Above all, there must be full and open cooperation of each individual to get the job done to the best of one's ability. This is not an impossible ideal: when requisites are met, successful religious education can result. At the foundation of all, there is a I "must" for people to be nurtured in things spiritual. The interior life of a real CCD member must be full and rich with the radiance of Christ, so that each may shine as a lantern of God before men.

A Word of Gratitude

Cold facts so necessary for any history leave little room for the vast numbers of hardships and humorous happenings that mark the growth and development of the CCD. That is why, in this year 1972, the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles takes time out to extend a word of profound gratitude to all men and women of every generation and every land who have contributed in any way to this great apostolate. God alone knows what sacrifices they made. God alone can – and will – fittingly reward them.

Copyright 1972 Office of Religious Education 

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