The origin of the Glenmary Research Center (GRC) can be traced back to Glenmary's Third General Chapter (1959) which ordered a survey of Glenmary's missions and then the establishment of the Glenmary Research Department in 1966. Later, Glenmary participated in the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) as its "Town and Country Division."

The GRC, as it is constituted today, was established in 1966 to assist individual missioners, Church leaders and the wider society in identifying, focusing on and addressing mission-related issues, problems and opportunities, drawing upon the social science disciplines, theology (particularly ecclesiology and missiology), and the lived experiences of missioners and the people whom they serve.

From 1966 through 1982 the Center focused its attention on the planning and development needs of the local missionary parish and its ministries. During this period the Center drew upon the discipline of sociology, the best of pre-Vatican II and early-Vatican II theology. Methodologically, emphasis was placed upon documentary, interview and survey techniques. Many relatively short reports of an "applied" nature were issued and distributed through the Center. It was during this period that The Small Rural Parish was published and the Center provided leadership for the development and publication of the nationally recognized Churches and Church Membership series.

From 1983 through 1992, the Center focused on issues that clustered around the challenge in evangelization of the "unchurched," emphasizing mutuality and interreligious dialogue in a culturally and religiously pluralistic society. During this period the Center shifted orientation away from sociology to critical anthropology and toward Vatican II and post-Vatican II theology. Research methodology shifted toward case studies using observational and oral history techniques. It was during this period that the nature and implications of cultural pluralism were emphasized. Although short applied reports continued to be produced, greater emphasis was placed on larger, more in-depth studies produced for a national and/or academic audience. It was also during this period that ongoing relationship with the hierarchy lessened.

From 1993 through 1996 there was no single focus for the Center in terms of a substantive theme. However, there were significant changes in the approach to research used by the Center. During this period, missioners from the field began to raise questions and ask for assistance in meeting the challenges they faced in increasingly "multi-cultural" parishes. As a result, the GRC and Department of Pastoral Ministers and Pastoral Services cooperated in carrying out the "Multi-Cultural Parish Project." Based on these requests and the general importance of this phenomenon in light of existing and projected demographic changes, the GRC Advisory Board recommended that this issue, in some form, be taken as the Center's third substantive focus.

Although many ongoing and new projects were engaged in during this period (some of which were program "evaluations" based on participants' "learnings") and the shift toward post-Vatican II theology continued, the major shift which occurred was a methodological shift toward "participatory research" initiated, guided by and completed on behalf of marginalized people and greater community activism. "National leadership" came to be viewed more in terms of dialogue and support of regional and national communities and organizations of diverse marginalized peoples rather than religious or civil "institutional structures."

In 1998 the GRC was temporarily closed (May through August) while the Center offices were moved from Decatur, Ga., to the newly renovated Robert C. Berson Center in Nashville, Tenn. At this time a new director was employed and work began to integrate the philosophies and practices of the earlier periods into a new and coherent whole.

In 2010, the administration office of the GRC moved to Glenmary's Headquarters in Cincinnati, Ohio.

The GRC is currently gathering the Catholic data for inclusion in the Religious Congregation and Membership Study 2010, which will be released in 2012.