The Archivist’s Nook: The Darkness is the Light – Father Cyprian Davis and the Black American Catholic Experience

Father Cyprian Davis. Photo Courtesy of St. Meinrad Archabbey

“Black Theology arises from the experience of being black and oppressed in the United States. It is a theology which seeks, first, to speak to Black people where they are now. It explains what it means to them to be black and Christian. Only then does it look beyond the Black community and present itself, without apology, to the white Christian world.

—Diana Hayes, 1985 Dissertation titled Historical Experience and Method in Black Theology: The Interpretation of Dr. James A. Cone, submitted to the Faculty of the School of Theology at the Catholic University of America.

The quoted text is from the dissertation of a previous Catholic University of America theology student and is representative of the many powerfully-written hermeneutical texts that were authored by students and collected by Father Davis in his exploration of the Black American Catholic experience.

Cyprian Davis was one of the great theologians, exegetes, liturgiologists, homeletes and (what the Swahili call a mwanafalsafa) to emerge from the African American Catholic tradition and the Catholic tradition as a whole. His work was focused on racial reconciliation, racial unity, the unity of the church, the evolution of the African American Catholic identity, and the healing of a people who carry the genetic scars of enslavement.

The History of Black Catholics by Cyprian Davis. Copy from The Catholic University of America Archives

The literatures of the Davis collection are emblematic of what any descendant of the Africans who were brutally snatched from their homelands and placed into a vile system of chattel enslavement in order to build The United States of America into the greatness that it is today, would intuitively know: that the historical and contemporaneous African American experience is one of dizzying permutation. It is a disparate amalgamation of social forces and perplexities that has been aptly characterized by the Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III as a blue note existence—one in which the existential mood is premised upon the contrasting nature of all things bittersweet. This notion of contrasting forces as coessential to one another, is a conceptualization that is prevalent throughout the history of West African philosophical schools of thought and is critical to the African understanding of the world. The West African cerebration of metaphysic coessentiality and complimentary opposing forces within the natural world was exhaustively investigated and expertly exposited by Marimba Ani in her 1994 monograph called YuruguMetaphysical coessentiality is the ethereal, spiritual marrow that is responsible for the superhero endurance that African Americans have shown throughout the history of the Atlantic World and it is the foundation on which Davis’ epistemology rests.

The Black spiritual and religious tradition is often simply referred to as The Black Church; however, this phrase is indicative of an uninformed, undistinguished, monolithic view that belies the multifactorial nature of the African American spiritual tradition and how it was transmuted by White Christian violence that was enacted as a means of perpetuating African American enslavement and dehumanization, and as a means of destroying African American’s own centuries old West African spiritual traditions by having the church decree them as evil witchcraft that would need to be denounced or one would suffer grave tortures to ensure that this occurred.   

1979 Series by The Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History, Inc. from Cyprian Davis’ personal library

While Christianity was largely unknown to African Americans, it was a faith that had noble roots in East African societies that are older than those in Rome. Despite the malefactions through which the African American religious tradition emerged, it was transformed by Africans’ creative nature through creolization and syncretism between traditional West African spirituality and the new religious tradition forced on African Americans.  

What is most interesting about Father Cyprian Davis is evident throughout his collection—his remarkable quest to reconcile the ways in which the word of God had been hijacked and weaponized against African Americans. But how did Davis forge a space for African Americans?

As an archivist, Davis was not afraid of facing the ugliness of the Church’s history head on and exploited this history to bolster the physical, psychological, intellectual, and spiritual resilience of the African American Catholic community. Davis understood that the darkness of the past was inextricable from the light of the future, so he sought to prepare African American Catholics for a church that was in many ways no different from the world around it because the church had been historically and contemporaneously a hostile space for African Americans that would require the acuity of self-knowledge to navigate and to repair the institution. It was an incredibly bold way to usher in the spirit of reparation, through directly living out the Church’s values of human dignity and the mandate to protect the sacred nature of life.

Father Cyprian Davis Photo Courtesy of St. Meinrad Archabbey

The Cyprian Davis collection consists of 32 boxes of materials from the estate of Benedictine Fr. Cyprian Davis of St. Meinrad Archabbey in St. Meinrad, Indiana. The collection reflects his research into and interest in the history of black Catholics in the United States, black spirituality, and the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus, which he helped found in 1968. The collection includes a wide range of materials, mostly printed, and reflects Davis’ multifaceted interests. Among the items are the records, agendas, and minutes from various conference proceedings, especially the National Black Clergy Caucus, the National Black Catholic Congress, and joint conferences. Also included are the records pertaining to a range of projects in which Davis was heavily involved, including the Black Hymnal Project and the Historical Commission in the Cause of Father Augustus Tolton (1854-1897). Davis’ notes and assembled research material relating to his most famous book, The History of Black Catholics in the United States (publ. 1990), and other research projects are also included, along with the texts of his various public addresses. The bulk of the materials span the period from the late 1960s to the mid-2000s.

 

 

The Archivist’s Nook: National Treasure – Catholic University Students Explore Campus History

Flier for the November 17th National Treasure event sponsored by Campus Ministry. No, Benjamin Franklin Gates did not steal our beloved Gus Garvey. As this recent photo shows, Gus is alive, well, and ready for the holidays!

There are many ways to connect the present with the past. One of the easiest is through physical objects, such as, say, informing students on the history of the physical space of their university campus. The Archives worked with Campus Ministry this past November on an event which had students playing trivia, doing a campus scavenger hunt, and watching National Treasure, a heist film involving a search for a treasure hidden by the American Founding Fathers. The event, inspired by the film and thus dubbed “National Treasure” itself, had students exploring the Catholic University campus for prizes while learning about the layers of history embedded on the campus itself.

A list of the items placed in the cornerstone of Caldwell Hall when the building was erected in 1888.

Indeed, the National Treasure reference is not really that far off the mark. Take the first structure built in 1803 on what is now the University campus, Sidney. Sidney, after the political theorist Algernon Sidney, was built and occupied by Margaret Bayard Smith and her husband, Samuel Harrison Smith, who was invited to move to the District of Columbia by then President Thomas Jefferson in order to publish the city’s first newspaper, The National Intelligencer, which he did. Jefferson, James and Dolley Madison, and other political luminaries visited Sidney back in the early days of Washington, D.C. Later, the house was sold to the Middleton family, and in 1887, to the founders of the Catholic University.

In 1890 the administration saw fit to allow the physicist and astronomer George Searle to construct an observatory at the highest point on campus, which lies just North of Centennial Village. The observatory contained a telescope and was used to observe and study, among other things, comets. Though the observatory burned down in 1924, the base for the telescope remains. On the left is the intact observatory in its heyday. On the right are Alexis Anelli (left) and Ella Wermuth (right) braving the chilly air to learn its history more than a century later.

The scavenger hunt/trivia night involved exploration of some of the earliest physical aspects of the campus, including two of CUA’s founders: Mary Gwendoline Caldwell’s eponymous Caldwell Hall and its cornerstone, laid in 1888, as well as the ginormous marble statue of Leo XIII that found itself in the foyer of McMahon Hall when it was constructed in 1895 and hasn’t moved since.

More recently built structures are quickly acquiring some local historical significance, too. The Great Rooms of the Pryzbyla Center hosted Pope Benedict XVI during his visit to the United States in 2008. And the lower level of the Pryz features a painting of a CUA Cardinal done by the actor Jon Voight while he was a student here in the late 1950s—the painting was originally done on the floor of the gymnasium, which was housed in what is today the Crough Center for Architectural Studies.

The Archivist’s Nook: The Brutal Archives

1920s CUA Brochure to Prospective Students from the CUA Archives Photographic Collection Ca. 1887-1999: Box 71, Folder 7.

The construction of a Brutalist building at The Catholic University of America marked a departure from the existing architectural style previously seen at CUA and it was a departure from original conceptions of the growth of the university taking shape in a form that resembled a medieval village.

How did this shift in architecture challenge the ideas of public space? Was it a social experiment that was well suited to the academic environment?

I recently chatted with Eric Jenkins, a Professor of Architecture at Catholic University’s School of Architecture and Planning to get the answer to this question:

It was very expressionist; a lot of architects in the 70s were not concerned with making a typical campus, such as Yale, with its unified and orderly sense of space; they were concerned with making a modern statement” This modernist statement was invoked in the form of Aquinas Hall, the current home of The Catholic University of America Archives and 1 of 4 Brutalist expressions currently on campus.

The grand entrance stairway consists of a set of angulated right vertices and rectilinear striations of concrete whose descent to a planular surface of alternating rectangles adds an ethereal level of depth to the viewer’s field of vision.

Washingtonians are organically familiar with the Brutalist Aesthetic, due to the ubiquity of Government Brutalism in Washington D.C. In fact, The District is home to extremely beautiful examples of the Brutalist architectural style. From the trip to work, to the work place itself, a Washingtonian’s daily routine is saturated by the atmospheric essence of Béton Brut, which can be seen in the ceilings of the Metro’s cavernous stations and seen deep within the bowels of Downtown.

Washington’s Brutalist buildings are a communique of power, impenetrability, and the performative use of materials to create a remarkable psycho-social demarcation through jarring exaggerations in building scale that coerce the viewer to process the architectural form from a macroscopic perspective, in what Professor Jenkins noted as “object-oriented landscaping, in which the building becomes a landscape object.”

The atrium central staircase is an act of paradox: an acute involution of inflexible materials around a softer hexagonal social area presenting an unusual mix of refined textiles and raw materials.

Brutalism was the Federal Government’s de rigueur style during the 1970s; but tucked away at The Catholic University of America, a new player entered the field, in the form of a quieter, more pensive expression that emerged in divergent transition to the Federal Government’s translation of the Brutalist aesthetic.

In 1965, candidates for the Master of Arts in English, at The Catholic University of America, were asked during their comprehensive examinations to ruminate on a complexly layered observation made by Mark Shorer in the foreword of Society and Self in the Novel, a 1955 treatise edited by Shorer in which he made the following annunciation:

“…the problem of the novel has always been to distinguish between these two, the self and society, and at the same time to find suitable structures that will present them together.”

The central staircase appears dramatic in the morning sunlight due to the striking contrasts created by the deep shadows of the opposing faces.

From an interdisciplinary standpoint, the ontological consideration of the parallels, partitions and implications of what is real, what is imagined, and what can become, is one of the core considerations of designing a building—in other words: how to reconcile between anthropocentricity and design aesthetics to create a unified conversation between these aspects that are at times in harmonious communication and at other times in discordant miscommunication. The design of CUA’s Aquinas Hall squares this circle because the building was not designed through a psycho-social lens but rather as a form of psycho-geographical praxis in which scale is downplayed and the viewer’s gaze is shifted to the granular level. In this context, the juxtaposition of raw, coarse, unpolished, imperfect, cacophonous materiality results in theatric, unexpected geometries.


A melodic, psychogeographic exploration of the geometry and materiality of the Brutalist home of The Catholic University of America’s Archives.

Images and video of Aquinas Hall are by the author, Juan-Pablo Gonzalez.

The Archivist’s Nook: Monsignor John O’Grady and the Making of Modern Catholic Charity

Though this undated photo is probably posed, John O’Grady was raised by farmers in Ireland, and served farmers and others as a priest in the Diocese of Omaha, Nebraska. Monsignor O’Grady is pictured on the right.

For all of his gregariousness, Monsignor John O’Grady is one of the lesser-known leaders in twentieth century American Catholic history. And yet, he is one of the founders and organizers of what is today known as Catholic Charities, USA, one of the largest charitable organizations in America, and of CARITAS, which carries the mission to serve and advocate for the poor globally.

Like many a priest in the early twentieth-century United States, O’Grady was born in Ireland. “In the beginning there was Ireland,” he once noted, “I smile as I write these words, remembering many of my fellow priests whose behavior from time to time is an assumption that these words are the first words of Genesis.” Indeed, many Irish families of the nineteenth century expected that one of their sons would become a priest, and the O’Gradys were no exception. Upon his birth on March 31st, 1886, Margaret O’Grady later told her son that “then and there” it was decided that young John would be a priest.¹ After attending All Hallows College in Dublin from 1902-1909, O’Grady spent three years serving as Assistant Pastor at the Cathedral in Omaha Nebraska.

O’Grady came from a family of impoverished farmers in County Clare, a circumstance that made him sensitive to the plight of those in similar circumstances in the United States. Even in his earliest years as a priest, his interest in working not only with his parishioners, but with the poorest of Omaha drove him. As he put it, “I had always been very much interested in people and curious about life, and so I found myself sitting around talking to the families which belonged to our parish about many things; their problems, their interests, their hopes, their plans…” Soon, O’Grady found himself frequenting impoverished neighborhoods, courts, juvenile detention homes in search of situations in which he could offer advice and advocacy.²

Three key founders of Catholic charity in the United States. From left, Monsignor Joseph Kerby, Catholic University Rector Thomas Shahan, and Monsignor John O’Grady.

O’Grady had been told about the work of Monsignor John A. Ryan, the Catholic University professor who had authored an influential book, A Living Wage, and was intensely interested in both the economic and social side of charity. When his Bishop, Richard Scannell, wanted to send O’Grady for further schooling in Germany, O’Grady requested that he send him to The Catholic University of America instead. O’Grady did indeed form an important intellectual relationship with John Ryan at the University, but his first mentor was another professor, sociologist Monsignor William Kerby. Kerby was considered the founder of what was called “scientific charity” in Catholic circles, which is what the emerging profession of social work called training for the field of social work. At the time, the idea of training individuals in sociology, economics and various aspects of charitable care was something that not everyone accepted.

After directing his training in sociology, economics and the social sciences at Catholic University and the University of Chicago, Monsignor Kerby set O’Grady to the work of coordinating members of the local Catholic charitable groups, particularly the St. Vincent de Paul Societies, in cities throughout the United States. Monsignor John J. Butler, of Catholic Charities of St. Louis Missouri was a particularly good mentor for O’Grady, who claimed that Butler “is a man who knows how to get things done and he does it quietly.” Bishop Thomas Shahan, Rector of Catholic University, was also a crucial supporter, as were lay Vincent de Paul charity workers Thomas Mulry and Edmond Butler, and Rev. D.J. McMahon of New York.³

Collectively, this group was instrumental in forming the core of the National Conference of Catholic Charities, renamed Catholic Charities, USA in 1986. Over the next decade the NCCC grew into an association of lay volunteers, and to a lesser extent, professional social workers and clergy. Catholic laywomen dominated the early membership, while the leadership was comprised of members of the St. Vincent de Paul Society.

A National Conference of Catholic Charities program, September, 1918. From the records of Catholic Charities USA, CUA Archives.

While the organization’s first president, Shahan, and its first secretary, Kerby, were instrumental in laying out the broader goals of the NCCC, O’Grady, was more aggressive and strategic in his leadership of NCCC. Kerby was courteous and reticent about his role in the establishment of the national organization, and maintained strong organizational relationships with the early leadership and lay volunteers of NCCC. O’Grady, who served as secretary in 1920 and remained at the helm of the NCCC for the next 41 years, sought to extend its influence through further cultivation of professional charity workers and the strengthening of the diocesan branches. A central figure in the professionalization of Catholic social workers, he promoted the establishment of the Catholic University School of Social Work to train them, serving as its first dean from 1934 until 1938. O’Grady, moreover, actively sought to exercise influence in government where public policy affecting Catholic charity was concerned, meeting with countless government figures on issues related to child welfare, housing, and rural poverty. By the time he left the helm of the NCCC in 1961, the organization was a national force in charity work and offered an authoritative voice in public welfare policy. It remains that today.

A finding aid for the papers of Monsignor John O’Grady can be found here.

A finding aid for the papers Monsignor William Kerby can be found here.

A finding aid for the papers of Bishop Thomas Shahan can be found here.

A finding aid for the records of Catholic Charities USA can be found here.


¹Quote from “Come Now, Monsignor,” unpublished memoir of O’Grady by Saul Alinsky, Monsignor John O’Grady Papers, chapter 1, p. 1, box 22, folder 6, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

²“Come Now, Monsignor,” pps. 19, 24.

³“Come Now, Monsignor,” chapter 4, p. 2; see also Dorothy Brown and Elizabeth McKeown, The Poor Belong to Us; Catholic Charities and American Welfare (Harvard University Press, 1997).

The Archivist’s Nook: Catholic Textbooks Beyond the Classroom

Madonna Speller, Grade 7, 1960. Commission on American Citizenship Records, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

This week’s post is guest-authored by Austin Arminio, a graduate student in the field of Library and Information Science.

For the past three months, I worked on a project to digitize publications of the Commission on American Citizenship of The Catholic University of America. During the 1938 Golden Jubilee of The Catholic University of America (CUA), Pope Pius XI sent a letter of congratulations to the American hierarchy. In this letter, he also gave the church leaders an assignment to create a curriculum for Catholic school students giving special attention to civics, sociology, and economics. The Bishops heeded the call, prompting CUA to create the Commission on American Citizenship. The Commission’s goal was to develop a school curriculum that educated elementary students on how to be both good American citizens and moral Catholics.

This is Our Parish, New Edition, 1952. Commission on American Citizenship Records, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

The Commission, founded by CUA faculty members Fr. Joseph M. Corrigan, Msgr. Francis J. Haas, and Msgr. George Johnson, went about creating textbooks to educate children on American history, literature, mathematics, citizenship, and Christian morals. Some of these works, such as the Madonna Speller series, would not be out of place in a public school, teaching writing, grammar, and spelling; while others like Faith and Our Freedom: This is Our Parish, dealt exclusively with Catholic religious teachings and how they apply to everyday life. Some books contained messages that were considered astonishing for their time. Faith and Freedom: These are Our People has the story of Eddie Patterson inviting his Chinese-American and African-American friends to his birthday party. While some of the language would be considered stereotypical today, CUA archivist Dr. Maria Mazzenga notes that at the time of the books publishing, Jim Crow and the Chinese Exclusion Act were still enforced.

During my time on this project, I was glad for the opportunity to create metadata and use a digital document repository such as Islandora, the software used by the Washington Research Libraries Consortium (WRLC). I had previously only worked with the scanning of documents, leaving the later steps to others, so it was interesting to deal with this part of the archival process. While it was time-consuming and required attention to detail using coding systems such as HTML and XML, the overall process was fairly simple. I believe that alone is an important and vital part of digital archiving. If these systems are to be adopted by libraries and archives, it is vital they be easy to use by both those who create them and those who use them for research.

A heartwarming scene, Faith and Freedom: This is Our Home, 1942, p. 26-27. American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

At the same time, this project made me painfully aware of the limitations of digital technology. This project, which only involved scanning 19 works, the longest of which was around 250 pages, took me almost three months to complete. In contrast, the actual creation of metadata and uploading the files to Islandora only took around two days. While obviously larger digitization projects would involve more than just one person working on scanning, it is clear to me time and resources are the main obstacles for digital archiving. To remedy this, institutions might instead benefit by only focusing on certain collections for online digitization. Those items that are most visually interesting, such as the brightly colored and illustrated CAC texts, are some of the best candidates for digitization, as they are likely to draw attention and interest to the larger collection.

The Archivist’s Nook: Birds of a Feather – THE CARDINAL’s Early Years

The Cardinal’s first volume, campus scene, p. 7. American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

The Cardinal, the aptly named annual yearbook of The Catholic University of America (CUA), recently celebrated its centenary of publication. Volumes are available online as a digital collection of the American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives, which also preserves print copies. As we approach another centenary, American entrance into the First World War, we thought it appropriate to examine the early years of The Cardinal for a window on the bygone campus life of that prewar era.

Although CUA first opened its doors to students in 1889, it did not have a student produced annual yearbook, The Cardinal, until 1916, the eve of American entry into the First World War. This was primarily due to Catholic University originating as an institution of graduate education and research focusing on clerics. However, facing dire financial insecurity as the twentieth century dawned, CUA acted to increase its funding potential by admitting the first male undergraduates in 1904.¹

The Class of 1916 proudly stands for The Cardinal, 1916, p. 38. American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

In the years after 1904, CUA’s growing student population² repeatedly expressed the desire for a yearbook but it took the Class of 1916 to make the yearbook, The Cardinal, a reality.  Thomas E. Stone was the original editor, William J. Coughlin business manager, and Noel John Deisch art editor. The remaining Cardinal staff included James G. Kelly secretary; Gregor H. Heine, John A Bond, and Joseph A. Murphy assistant art editors; Paul R. Burke assistant business manager; James J. Conlin athletics editor; Charles F. McGovern societies editor; and Paul J. Fitzpatrick as historian. Star athlete Edward L. Killion later replaced Stone as editor, though the latter remained a contributor.

The Cardinal staff, 1916, p. 268. American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

The original dimensions of the Cardinal were about 8.5 by 10.5 inches and 240 pages, a format it has generally maintained, with a few notable exceptions, into the twenty-first century. Original features, many of which have endured through the years, included sections on the faculty, classes (seniors, juniors, sophomores, and freshmen), athletics, societies, campus publications, follies, and advertisements. A major highlight then and now are the myriad photographs depicting people, events, and the campus grounds. After only two volumes, 1916 and 1917, the pressures of the First World War, with the majority of young men in military service rather than college, forced The Cardinal on hiatus until 1919 when annual publication resumed.

The Cardinal, 1917, p. 9, themed for the world war. American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

The generation of CUA alumni and students called to service in World War I³, like their brethren on both side of the Atlantic, sacrificed their best and brightest, most notably 1916 Cardinal editor, Edward L. Killion, a captain in the 79th Infantry Division who later died of wounds bravely received at Montfaucon during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive of October 1918. After the war, CUA would honor its fallen heroes. At Commencement in 1919 the athletic grounds, then located on the present site of Curley Hall, were renamed after Killion, and in 1922 a memorial to all fifteen members of the CUA honor roll was erected on campus. The Second World War forced another publication cessation in 1944-1947 though otherwise there has been a new annual volume of The Cardinal into the twenty first century.


¹See the delightful account of one of the first undergraduates in Frank Kuntz. Undergraduate Days 1904-1908 The Catholic University of America. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1958. Also, the complicated story of the gradual admission of women to CUA after 1911 is for a future blog post.

²For the 1903-1904 academic year, there were 91 students (60 clerical, 31 lay). This rose to 224 (124 clerical, 100 lay) in 1907-1908; 370 (102 clerical, 268 lay) in 1911-1912; and 557 (147 clerical, 410 lay) in 1915-1916, Annual Reports of the Rector of CUA.

³Our November 11, 2015 blog post, For God and Country, discusses the American Catholic war effort overall, including CUA.

The Archivist’s Nook: The Significance of Eddie Patterson’s Friends

Illustration for poem, “World Brothers” from These Are Our Horizons, by Sister M. Charlotte and Marry Synon (Ginn and Company, 1945). Note the multiple national and ethnic backgrounds of the images, intended to underscore an ideal of global unity after the Second World War.
Illustration for poem, “World Brothers” from These Are Our Horizons, by Sister M. Charlotte and Marry Synon (Ginn and Company, 1945). Note the multiple national and ethnic backgrounds of the individuals, intended to underscore an ideal of global unity after the Second World War.

Nineteen-thirty-eight was not an auspicious year as far as the stability of Europe went. Adolph Hitler’s invasion into non-German territories proceeded at an alarming rate. Benito Mussolini had been running Fascist Italy as a police state for over a decade. The Vatican held uneasy diplomatic relations with both powers. Further east, Josef Stalin presided over a Soviet Union unfriendly toward religion. In short, expansionism and totalitarianism appeared to be consuming Europe and, of course, a war would begin the following year to ensure it didn’t.

The year also marked the Golden Jubilee of the Catholic University of America, which is a fancy Catholic way of saying the University turned 50. Worried about the fate of Europe and, indeed, of Catholicism, Pope Pius took advantage of the University’s 50th birthday to make a request. “Christian doctrine and Christian morality are under attack from all quarters,” he said, adding, “dangerous theories which a few years ago were but whispered in conventicles of discontent are today preached from the housetops and are even finding their way into action.” As the representative educational institution of the American hierarchy, the Pope noted, the University was endowed with the “traditional mission of guarding the natural and supernatural heritage of man.” Toward fulfillment of that mission, wrote the Pope, “it must, because of the exigencies of the present age, give special attention to the sciences of civics, sociology, and economics” in a “constructive program of social action” that fit local needs.¹

Following the Pope’s directive, the Bishops instructed the University to prepare materials of instruction in citizenship and Christian social living for use in the Catholic schools of the United States. The Commission on American Citizenship was organized in 1939 to carry out the Bishops’ mandate. They decided that the Commission would outline a statement of Christian principles as requested by the bishops, create a curriculum for the elementary schools, and oversee the writing of a series of textbooks to embody the social message of Christ. According to Dr. Mary Synon, who oversaw much of the day-to-day operation of the Commission, while the Department of Education and the School of Social Science did much of the Commission’s work, practically every department and school of the University contributed significantly.

One product of this effort was a series of textbooks for elementary through high school students used in most U.S. Catholic schools from the 1940s through the 1970s. For Catholic school students from the first through eighth grades, the Commission designed the Faith and Freedom series of basal readers based on the principles espoused in the curriculum. Aiming to establish Christian principles in the minds of students toward their use in daily living, the writers of the readers–Sister Mary Marguerite for the Primary Grades and Sister Mary Thomas Aquinas, Sister Mary Charlotte and Dr. Mary Synon for the intermediate and upper grades–built a series on social education according to the principles cited as base for the work of the Commission.

Image from “Eddie Patterson’s Friend,” from These Are Our People (Ginn and Company, 1943). What’s wrong with Eddie’s friends? The story’s answer: not a thing.
Image from “Eddie Patterson’s Friends,” from These Are Our People (Ginn and Company, 1943). What’s wrong with Eddie’s friends? The story’s answer: not a thing.

According to a 1946 Commission report, these readers were used in more than 6,000 of the 8,000 Catholic elementary schools in more than thirty-five archdioceses and dioceses in the United States. Copies of texts in this series were officially requested by the military authorities who were revising systems of education in occupied Japan and Germany after World War II. Catholic publicists in Belgium, France and the Netherlands referred to this series for their future education plans. Missionaries in the Philippines requested the copies for children there, and nearly every Catholic school in Hawaii used the texts. Also, the Commission received many inquiries from educators about using the series as possible models for books to be used in non-Catholic schools. A key theme throughout the readers is cooperation across cultures and social classes and an emphasis on Christian democratic ideals in creating a less conflicted postwar world.

Which brings us to the significance of one 1943 text story titled “Eddie Patterson’s Friends.” Eddie was an extremely generous and open-minded young man who “finds the queerest people,” according to his rather judgmental sister Mary. Mary worried about Eddie’s strange friends with his birthday party coming up. The girls on the block where they lived would “laugh if we let Eddie ask anyone he wants to the party.” Mary went so far as to convince their mother to throw Eddie a surprise party for which she and her sister would control the guest list to keep out those she felt should be excluded.

Who were the excluded? “The smiling Yim Kee, whose father ran the Chinese laundry… Frank Bell, the boy whose father had been taken away by the police.” And, “Silas Jefferson, whose father worked as porter on a train.”² Clearly these are stereotypes of Chinese Americans, African Americans and a neglected and possibly impoverished child. But consider the year of publication: 1943. The Chinese Exclusion Act passed in 1882 barred Chinese immigrants from citizenship until it was repealed in 1943. African Americans were legally segregated from whites, and in fact segregated virtually everywhere in the U.S. Stories like this one pointed to the end of such practices and customs.

A Finding Aid to the Commission on American Citizenship records can be found here: http://archives.lib.cua.edu/findingaid/americancit.cfm


¹Maria Mazzenga, “More Democracy, More Religion: Baltimore’s Schools, Religious Pluralism, and the Second World War,” in One Hundred Years of Catholic Education: Historical Essays in Honor of the Centennial of the National Catholic Educational Association (National Catholic Education Association, 2003); Finding aid to the Commission on American Citizenship Records: http://archives.lib.cua.edu/findingaid/americancit.cfm.

²“Eddie Patterson’s Friend,” from These Are Our People by Sister M. Thomas Aquinas, O.P., M.A. and Mary Synon (Ginn and Company, 1943), 44-56, 46.