Posts with the tag: American Catholic History Classroom

The Archivist’s Nook: Announcing a New Online Resource about the History of American Catholic Schools, 1893–1993

This groovy button was produced by the Diocese of Erie, Pennsylvania for Catholic Schools Week in 1974. This year, Catholic Schools Week 2021 will run from Jan. 31 to Feb. 6.

With the launch of One Hundred Years of Catholic Schools (1893–1993), I’m pleased to announce the formal completion of a project that I’ve been working on since last spring. The latest addition to the American Catholic History Classroom, One Hundred Years of Catholic Schools (1893–1993) is an online resource that explores the history of American Catholic schools at the elementary and secondary levels between the 1890s and the 1990s. (See this illustrated timeline for a rundown.) Featuring a selection of documents and objects from Catholic University’s Special Collections (chiefly the American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives), the site is meant to offer an introductory overview of the topic with an eye towards promoting primary source literacy.

Better yet, it comes just in time for Catholic Schools Week 2021! Between the 1890s and the 1990s, the advent of Catholic Schools Week in 1973 signified an important change in tune. When they were first established in the late nineteenth century, Catholic schools offered a religious minority safe haven from the Protestant-dominated and overtly prejudiced public schools. But for a multitude of reasons coalescing around Vatican II, community-based schools catering to Catholic immigrants began to fade out in the mid twentieth century. As enrollments fell and operating costs rose, Catholic Schools Week came on the scene under the guise of a “self-help” project. The idea was to rebrand Catholic schools not as a last resort for a persecuted minority, but as an enticing alternative approach to education for anyone who lacked confidence in the public school system. The operative word was “choice.” This year, the annual promotional campaign is being held from Sunday, January 31st to Saturday, February 6th. (As an aside, February 6th also happens to be my grandma Rosemary Hogg’s 95th birthday; she earned her degree in library science at Catholic University in 1981).

Now, I’d be the first to admit that studying the development of America’s second-largest school system can be dry. In general, I’ve hoped to imbue the institutional history of American Catholic schools with some personality. Perhaps the strongest example from the site is this January 21, 1935 letter to the National Catholic Welfare Conference (today’s USCCB), in which Mrs. H. C. Schmidt of Rogers City, Michigan describes the school bus situation for her six-year-old daughter:

… We have had quite a time about the Bus calling for our child. Some of the members of the School Board claim that they are not compelled to transport a child attending the Parochial Schools. However after earnestly pleading with them, they agreed to take her into town but she is compelled to walk from the Public School to the Catholic School which is a distance of about one mile. It hardly seems fair. The child is cold when she gets off the Bus and has to start on her long walk. Then again she walks to the Public School at night and she is cold when she starts on her long drive. The winters are very severe here.

Handwritten letter dated January 21, 1935 from Mrs. H. C. Schmidt of Rogers City, Michigan to the NCWC regarding her six-year-old daughter who must walk a mile to and from her parochial school to catch the bus at the public school.
Handwritten letter dated January 21, 1935 from Mrs. H. C. Schmidt of Rogers City, Michigan to the NCWC regarding her six-year-old daughter who must walk a mile to and from her parochial school to catch the bus at the public school.

The issue of bus transportation was just one facet of the debate over the constitutionality of public funding for private schools, which hinged on the Establishment Clause; in the next decade it would reach the Supreme Court in Everson v. Board of Education (1947).

On top of pathos, Mrs. Schmidt’s letter includes an interesting allusion to “K.K.K. lawmakers”—making it a rich primary source that demands to be understood in its historical context. Although the Ku Klux Klan is commonly associated with the American South, it was active throughout the North and Northwest in the 1920s and 1930s; it’s notable that the Schmidt family resides in Michigan, where in 1920 a referendum on compulsory public education received a surprising amount of support—foreshadowing the events in 1922 that led to the most famous of all Supreme Court cases having to do with Catholic schools. The Oregon School Case (the subject of another Classroom site!) grew out of a Klan-backed bill requiring most school-age children to attend public schools. Writing ten years after the Supreme Court unanimously declared the Oregon School Law unconstitutional in 1925, Mrs. Schmidt gives us a glimpse into her ongoing struggle.

Through glimpses like these, I hope future users will come to appreciate the history of American Catholic schools as I eventually did: as an underdog, coming-of-age story.

The Archivist’s Nook: My Constant Companions – Sisters Justina and Blandina Segale

My History Icons: Sisters Blandina Segale (standing, left) and Justina Segale at the Silver Jubilee of the Santa Maria Institute in 1922. (Image Courtesy of the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati)

Guest author, Mary Beth Fraser Connolly, is a lecturer in History at Purdue University Northwest. She received her doctorate from CUA and is a former student worker in the Archives.

My relationship with Justina and Blandina Segale and the Santa Maria Institute has been going on for two decades. It was twenty-one years ago I began my PhD studies in history at The Catholic University of America and that first semester I came across two articles that referenced the Santa Maria Institute: Ilia Delio’s “The First Catholic Social Gospelers: Women Religious in the Nineteenth Century” and Margaret McGuiness’s “Body and Soul: Catholic Social Settlements and Immigration,” both in the summer 1995 issue of U.S. Catholic Historian. That started it. While these two articles helped me develop a dissertation topic, archival research brought me closer to the sisters themselves. (As I write this, a black-and-white photocopy of the Segales is tacked up above my desk, right next to the August 14, 2016 feature story from the Sunday edition of the Cincinnati Enquirer, which examines Sister Blandina’s Search for Sainthood. They are my history icons.) Through colorful letters and frankly written journal or convent chronicle entries, their personalities leapt from the documents. Sisters Justina and Blandina Segale went from two-dimensional figures of some nearly forgotten past to vital, courageous, at times, stubborn, flawed, and faithful Catholic women who had relevance for my work as a historian and in my classroom.

Thankfully, I have not been alone in my pursuit of the real Justina and Blandina Segale. M. Christine Anderson, associate professor of history at Xavier University, Judith Metz, SC, historian and former archivist of the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati, and I banded together to develop an exhibit for the American Catholic History Classroom hosted by the American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives at Catholic University. We bring to this classroom three perspectives on the work of the sisters and the Santa Maria Institute in Progressive-Era Cincinnati. This exhibit looks at the Sisters of Charity’s spiritual foundation and charism and how that informed the Segales work at the Santa Maria (Metz). It also focuses on how the sisters conducted social work in immigrant neighborhoods among primarily Italians, but they also served Irish, German, and other immigrant populations. They provided education, religious instruction, and material aid to children and adults. Understanding the important role that laywomen could fill in social welfare work, they also encouraged young women to move into this growing profession of social work. (Anderson) The exhibit also considers the actions of the sisters as agents of Americanization at a time when the federal and local governments, along with Protestant religious organizations sought to transform immigrants into good American citizens. For Blandina and Justina, Italian immigrants as well, they saw this desire as an effort to deny Italian immigrants their heritage, language, and, most importantly, their Catholic faith. Blandina and Justina sought to shore up and possible restore Italian immigrants Catholicism and in doing so, they articulated a Catholic identity that allowed for assimilation into American life. (Connolly) 

A touch of the Wild West via horseless carriage. Sisters of Charity tour of the order’s missions in the Southwest in 1906 included Mother Mary Blanche Davis and future Mother Superior, Mary Florence Kent, who later directed the sisters not to rise in open cars. Such restrictions were often ignored in practice.

All three of these perspectives make for delightful classroom material. Everything centers on the Santa Maria Journal – the convent chronicle – kept by Sister Justina. Her biological sister, Blandina, may be the more known of the pair, what with her infamous confrontation of the notorious Billy the Kid and her more recent cause for canonization, but Justina’s words provide insight into the day-to-day life of Sisters of Charity steeped in their ministry. They show us their commitment to their faith, vows, and congregation. Those words also provide glimpses into the lives of Italian immigrants, when records are sparse in local Cincinnati archives. I have employed this history in my own classroom by using excerpt from the Santa Maria diary alongside Christine’s excellent 2000 Journal of Women’s History article, “Catholic Nuns and the Invention of Social Work: The Sisters of the Santa Maria Institute of Cincinnati, Ohio, 1897 through the 1920s.” Students, wholly unfamiliar with Catholic history, or what a nun is, have been drawn to the unflappable Sister Blandina and her strong and (somewhat silent) partner, Sister Justina. I have offered these readings with excerpts from Blandina’s At the End of the Santa Fe Trail, recently reissued. What I did not expect, all the while secretly hoped for, was that my students recognized the relevance of the Italian immigrants and these sisters’ experiences to their present lives. (Could it be that history offers something for us to learn today? Shocking, indeed!) Christine, Sister Judith, and I have collaborated to present the work of the Sisters of Charity and the Santa Maria Institute for this American Catholic History Classroom precisely because the exhibit draws together the separate elements of the Santa Maria Institute, the Sisters of Charity, and Blandina and Justina Segale’s work and lives into one place. From this point, a teacher, whether in a Catholic grammar or high school or an instructor in a college or university (both secular and religious) can pull out tools to discuss Catholic women’s spirituality, immigrant history, women’s history, and maybe even a touch of the Wild West. Frankly, I imagine Sister Blandina would love that and Sister Justina would commend our work as righting wrongs done to Italians, the ultimate Americans and Catholics.