National Catholic Register

Commentary

How Some Nuns Defeated the Ku Klux Klan

BY Donald DeMarco

August 14-27, 2011 Issue | Posted 8/5/11 at 5:29 PM

 

On May 23, 1992, Pope John Paul II beatified Eulalie Durocher and declared her to be “a woman for all times.” Blessed Eulalie was born in Quebec in 1811, the 10th of 11 children, in the village of St. Antoine on the Richelieu River. Three of her brothers became priests, and a sister entered the Congregation of Notre Dame.

Recognizing the need for education, especially for young girls, who at that time received little schooling, she founded, in the year 1843, the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary. It would be the first religious congregation in Canada to focus on education. After only six years as superior of the order she founded, Blessed Eulalie Durocher passed away. Her order, nonetheless, continued to flourish. Today, there are approximately 570 SNJM sisters and about 400 associates who are carrying out the society’s mission on four continents.

In 1859, Francis Norbert Blanchet, the first archbishop of Oregon City, Ore., invited 12 SNJM sisters to leave Quebec to carry out their education ministry in his diocese. Their mission was directed toward the full development of the human person through education, social justice, contemplation and the arts.

The good sisters did not think that they were imposing foreign ideologies or un-American ideas on the Oregonian children they taught. They saw themselves as educating their students to help them become mature, educated persons who would become socially responsible citizens in the world. The Ku Klux Klan, however, saw them from a rather different perspective and sought to protect Oregonian children from what they believed to be alien and un-American ideas.

In the early 1920s, Oregon was home to approximately 14,000 members of the Ku Klux Klan, including the mayor of Portland, many politicians and police officers. They regarded themselves as “real” Americans and felt duty bound to target the Catholic Church, the largest provider of private education. Fiery crosses and marches in Ku Klux Klan regalia were common sights in Oregon at that time.

Thus began a heated clash between a form of nationalism, as narrowly conceived by the Klan, and religious pluralism that seemed protected by the United States Constitution.

It was, indeed, a strange clash, since the Klan’s own Protestantism and many of their ancestors came from foreign lands. Even their name, Ku Klux Klan, appears to be exotic, being derived from the Greek word kuklos, meaning “circle” and the Scottish Gaelic clann, referring to a group of people joined together for a common purpose.

The Klan was instrumental in electing Democrat Walter Pierce governor of Oregon. While governor-elect, he appeared before the La Grande Provisional Klan on Nov. 21, 1922, and personally thanked the Klansmen for their support.

More importantly, for historical purposes, the Klan also played a significant role in getting the Oregon Compulsory Education Act passed in 1922. The act would compel all children between the ages of 8 and 16 to attend public schools. If implemented, it would mean the dissolution of all Catholic schools in the state of Oregon, along with all other private schools.

The sisters, who, at that time, operated many schools in Oregon, did not sit idly by. They sued, and the case was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Representatives for the state of Oregon (the “appellants”) argued that the state had an overriding interest to oversee and control the providers of education. Accordingly, they claimed that the state’s interest in overseeing the education of its citizens was so great that it overrode the parents’ right to choose which provider of education was best for their children. It was even argued that Oregon children are “the state’s children.”

By contrast, the “appellees” replied that the state did not have a right to absolute control over the system in which a child should be educated. They held that parents have a right to send their children to schools as they saw fit, including religious schools.

There was nothing in the records to indicate that society had failed to discharge its obligations to patrons, students and the state.

After deliberating for 10 weeks, the court issued its unanimous decision on June 1, 1925. In overturning the Oregon statute, the court stated as follows: “The fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this union repose excludes any general power of the state to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only. The child is not the mere creature of the state; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.”

The Oregon Compulsory Education Act, the court went on to state, “is an unreasonable interference with the liberty of the parents and guardians to direct the upbringing of the children and in that respect violates the Fourteenth Amendment.”

The Pierce v. Society of Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary decision referred to Meyer v. Nebraska (1923) as a precedent that invalidated a state law that prohibited foreign-language instruction for school children. This decision clearly affirmed that the U.S. Constitution protects the preferences of the parents in education over those of the state.

Numerous other Supreme Court decisions have upheld the right of the parents, one that conforms to the principle of subsidiarity, enunciated by Pope Pius XI in Quadragesimo Anno (1931).

Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972) stated that the “primary role of the parents in their upbringing of their children is now established beyond debate as an enduring American tradition.”

Quilloin v. Walcott (1978) declared: “We have recognized on numerous occasions that the relationship between parent and child is constitutionally protected.” Parham v. J.R. (1979) affirmed that “our jurisprudence historically has reflected Western civilization concepts of the family as a unit with broad parental authority over minor children. Our cases have consistently followed that course.”

Thus, the Society of Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary defeated the Ku Klux Klan and was instrumental in restoring Catholic and other forms of private education in the state of Oregon. The Pierce ruling was also a victory for universal thought, erroneously labeled by the Klan as “alien” or “foreign,” over insular thought that proved to be both tribal and truly un-American.

Blessed Eulalie Durocher appears to be “a woman for all time,” as Pope John Paul II referred to her, because she held to the values of great ideas and did not capitulate to the trends and fashions of her time. The extraordinary feature of great ideas is that they combine two things that appear to be eternally antagonistic to each other, namely, the present and the future, now and forever, life in the moment and in all the moments to come.

As C.S. Lewis put it, “All that is not eternal is eternally out of date.”

Donald DeMarco, Ph.D., is adjunct professor of philosophy at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut.