By Bob Sullivan
Decades after Horace Mann, the Know Nothing Party and the Potato Famine, small villages and communities in the Midwest were not only using Catholic Bibles in their public schools, they were celebrating Mass in chapels within the public schools.
As settlers staked their claims to farmland in Nebraska, Iowa, and South Dakota, they brought their faith with them. Many communities were settled by ethnic groups who stuck together, such as Irish or Czech or German or Polish, etc. In communities where these ethnic groups were predominately Catholic, they received priests from the diocese to serve as their pastors, and they eventually built Catholic churches and rectories. They also built schools and hired teachers.
Menominee, Nebr. was founded by German Catholic pioneers. Their public school district was founded in 1873. The first few teachers were lay people, but by 1923, the enrollment had outgrown the original building as well as the lay staff. The local priest asked the people in and around Menominee to build a new school, which they did. The parish donated the ground for the school building and once it was completed, the entire grade school was staffed by Benedictine Sisters from Yankton, S.D. “St. Boniface School” was even chiseled into the stone over the front entrance to the school. As the sisters taught, they wore their “religious garb,” which consisted of a long black gown, white coif and white corona covered by a black veil and a visible rosary. The students had the Catholic Catechism in their desks and prayed before and after recess.
Why were Catholic nuns the teachers of choice in the late 1800s and early 1900s in Nebraska? Because it was difficult to find educated and dedicated teachers who were willing to live on the frontier and in rural areas. Nuns were willing, ready and able to teach. They were also cheap, and they were numerous at that time.
In spite of the fact that it was a public school and some of the students were not Catholic, it appears there was no objection from the residents of the Menominee area. The sisters resided in the upper levels of the school house and the classes were taught on the lower levels. They also worked for a reduced salary which was paid by the State of Nebraska.
As a concession to non-Catholic families, all religious education took place before and after school. Therefore, if a family was not Catholic, their child could receive all of his or her education without any required instruction on Catholicism by simply arriving at the official starting time and departing at the official end of the school day.
In spite of Horace Mann’s efforts to reform society by assimilation through the public education system, this was a fairly common practice into the 1930s in various Nebraska communities in the rural Midwest, such as Menominee, Hartington, and Bow Valley.
In the early 1900s, more and more people began to adopt the belief that most, if not all, religion needed to be removed from public schools. These sympathies even reached out to the sparsely populated plains of Nebraska. Europe was beginning to feel the rumblings which would lead to WWI, and in the U.S. there were some who looked at German immigrants with less than charitable thoughts. Most German immigrants were either Catholic or Lutheran.
When WWI broke out, some grew suspicious about the presence of foreign enemies on American soil. They grew concerned about the use and teaching of the German language. The retention of a native language can be a strong tie to a person’s nationality, including the values, practices and beliefs embraced by their culture. This focused suspicion on German immigrants, many of whom were Catholics who still spoke their native German language. Horace Mann’s interest in assimilation and social reform was rekindled in Nebraska’s legislature and court system.
Nebraska passed a “religious garb” law in 1919, as well as a law prohibiting instruction of the German language to any student who had not yet completed the eighth grade. Several local school districts ignored the laws and continued to employ nuns.
Eventually, a Lutheran teacher from Hampton, Nebr., named Robert T. Meyer, was arrested for reading the Bible in the German language to Raymond Parpart, who at the time was only a fourth-grader. Meyer was charged, found guilty, and was fined $25. However, Parpart appealed the conviction to the U.S. Supreme Court, who declared the law unconstitutional1.
However, the times were changing. Where it was once perfectly acceptable to have religious statues, chapels, and crucifixes on the walls of Nebraska’s public schools, and to have nuns and priests teaching about Catholicism and other subjects in the public schools, such was no longer the case by the mid-1930s.
Eventually, the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled that Menominee could no longer use public funds to pay the nuns at their public school. Shortly thereafter, the school was officially renamed St. Boniface School and was operated as a parochial school thereafter.
In 2017, 98 years after Nebraska passed its religious garb law, it was repealed. The Legislature repealed the law because Sister Madeleine Miller, a nun in Norfolk, was denied a substitute teaching job in a public school because she intended to wear a habit. Religious garb laws had already been declared unconstitutional, but Nebraska’s law had remained on the books because few people knew it existed. Religion in public schools remains a contested topic in the courts to this day.
Now that we have a little history behind both Catholic schools and public schools in the U.S., we can look at how this has impacted K-12 education today.
1 Meyer’s attorney was Arthur Mullen, an Irish Catholic.