Monday, November 3, 2008

Catholic Schools / Public Schools, part 2

Today I was interviewing one of the Sisters who is celebrating her 60th Jubilee next year, S. Ruth Nierengarten. For about a decade she has been curator of the Haehn museum, but she's retiring now, on the advice of her doctor, at age 83, and plans to return to watercolors and charcoals, as she said, "as long as my eyesight and dexterity in my hands hold out." But most of her working life was spent in education, every grade at all kinds of schools. When she was leaving my office, I asked her if it was true that before Kennedy elementary opened in the 1960s, all the children in St. Joseph went to the Catholic school.

"99.98%!" she declared. "That's what I was told when I came back here." This would have been the 1940s, and she said the figure she heard at the time was that St. Joseph was 99.98% Catholic. In fact, she said, there was a bit of a scandal when one of the local men wanted to marry an Irish woman. This was a German Catholic town. And yes, in the 1930s and 1940s, every child went to the Catholic school.

I've done a little research, in the Sisters' histories, two books on separation of church and state, and in a book called They Came to Teach about Sisters of several Catholic orders who staffed the parochial schools of Minnesota, cowritten by one of our nuns, Sister Ann Marie Biermeier. According to these accounts, in the mid and late 1800s, there was a fierce battle over public and Catholic schools. It was part of the attempt to Americanize German and French immigrants. Parochial schools, it was believed, kept the immigrants from becoming American, from assimilating to their new-- Protestant-- country, and the very Protestant curriculum of the public schools.

The first Benedictines came from Pennsylvania to St. Cloud, Minn. in 1857 expressly to teach German immigrant children. But when they arrived there was a battle underway about how to staff the schools and what kind of schools to have. The decision was made to have public schools and not to hire Sisters as teachers. In their second year they did find employment at a parochial school in St. Cloud, where they taught for five years, but the pay was abysmal and their situation was precarious. Then they were hired at the district (public) school in St. Joseph in 1863, but the history reports that they were used to instructing girls in a convent-like setting and "were ill-prepared to teach the young boys, many of whom were larger and stronger than their teachers." They were not hired back the next year.

The next information I have about St. Joseph is in the sesquicentennial history written for the Catholic Church of St. Joseph in 2006. It talks about the building of the current school in 1926. The first school met in a two-story frame building in town that had been the public school. So there was a public school in St. Joseph, though I'm not clear about who taught in it. But throughout their history, from the Civil War forward, the Benedictine Sisters had come to St. Joseph to teach, and by all accounts they found places to teach. They prepared each other to take the teacher accreditation exams to be able to teach in the public schools, and they also taught in the parochial schools. And as time passed they went to classes and into whatever programs were available to them for furthering their own education and preparedness, and opened their own colleges for teacher training (in St. Joseph, a normal school was run by the Sisters from 1915-1924). A common story I'm hearing from the older Sisters is of spending their summers getting degrees in education or advanced degrees in specific subjects over the course of 12-16 years, while they continued to teach in the local schools.

It does seem that Sisters provided most of the teaching in the area public schools in the latter half of the 19th century and first part of the 20th century. According to the order's history, With Lamps Burning, "While the parochial scohols were multiplying, many predominantly Catholic and Lutheran settlements in the state continued the old custom of employing Catholic sisters or Lutheran teachers as instructors in their district public schools. In the St. Cloud diocese alone there were at one time as many as fifteen district schools employing Benedictine sisters. This system received its first setback in 1904 when the Minnesota attorney general declared that the wearing of the religious garb was prohibited because the teaching of any distinctive doctrine, creed, or tenets of any particular Christian religion in the public schools is forbidden by the state constitution" (179-80). However, Sisters continued to teach in the district schools, avoiding teaching religion classes and removing from their clothes "any specifically religious symbols that might be interpreted as promoting a particular religious belief." But here was the Attorney General's opinion: "I beg to say that a person clothed in the garb of a 'Sister' of the Catholic Church may not legally be employed to teach in the public schools. Such employment is contrary to the spirit and provision of hte Constitution of the state prohibiting the teaching of any religious doctrine or belief in the public schools, and guaranteeing freedom of religious belief" (letter from W. J. Donahower, Attorney General, May 25, 1904).

This was not, however, the first setback. The ambivalence and controversy over public and Catholic schools extended to Archbishop John Ireland, the first archbishop of St. Paul. In the 1890s he sold two struggling Catholic schools in Minnesota to public school districts (for $1 each), with the condition attached that religion no longer be taught in the schools, but also the provision that the nuns be retained as teachers and paid their same salaries. This policy caused an uproar among Catholic parents who had paid to build and staff the schools so far and now weren't getting the religious education they'd hoped for their children, but was upheld and approved of by the Vatican. It was covered by The New York Times, which retains the articles in its online archives.

At the same time, the attorney general's position is like the head scarf argument. Because a woman teacher wears a head scarf to class, that doesn't mean she's promoting Islam or proseltyzing the students to become Muslim.

And of course the Catholic schools couldn't be stopped either. If a church opened one, the parents sent their children to them in droves. By S. Ruth's account, there were more than 60 Sisters living in the convent attached to the Catholic high school in St. Cloud when she taught there in the 1940s and 1950s. In addition to the work, she remembered having great fun, with "Protestant and Catholic parties" serving soft drinks to the Protestants and beer for the Catholics, and also a production of Amal the Night Visitor, and games, such as one that had the Sisters stand at a board with only their noses peeking out, and the contestants had to identify them on that basis. "That's very hard, you know."

(I have to admit it sounds like the Halloween party the Sisters had on Friday night, which featured a variety of costume contest categories, including "Most pre-Vatican II, most post-Vatican II, most eco-friendly, and "The Rule." S. Dolores reportedly came as a gyrovague, a group warned against in the Rule of Benedict as hedonistic and who wandered from monastery to monastery without commitment [i.e., freeloaders]. At contest's end, she announced, "OK, I'm OUTTA HERE," to everyone's delight.)

Last Sunday we went to the monthly church breakfast prepared by the Knights of Columbus. It was my first time inside the St. Joseph lab school. The breakfast was $7.00, just like at the Chamber of Commerce lunch at Kennedy school. But for that price we got four kinds of sausage, eggs, toast, waffles with several toppings, and orange juice and coffee. The man who sold us our tickets was named Cletus Walz. I know another Cletus, Father Cletus, though he didn't choose that name, it was assigned to him when he entered St. John's Abbey almost sixty years ago. The floors were a gorgeous poured concrete, dark mottled gray with red splotches like dried blood here and there and with an inch of shine on top. There were some amazing pre-Vatican statues that were salvaged from the church when it was renovated, and also at the back an impressive case on the wall with the names of current and past members of the Knights of Columbus. Little children from the few big families left were circulating, serving juice and clearing plates. And in the back Paul, who is almost finished with that log cabin, and who is the head of the local chapter of the Knights, was making waffles.

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