Labor was only one issue that set a boundary between the liberal and conservative wings of the Catholic Church in the United States at the end of the nineteenth century. The First Plenary Council of Baltimore (a meeting of all the American bishops along with the superiors of the major male religious orders) mandated that every Catholic parish have a parochial school and this item was reiterated at the second and third Plenary Councils. Of course it was not always possible financially or otherwise for a parish to have a school, but more to the point there were some pastors who were not convinced that Catholic Schools were necessary and there were some bishops who agreed with them.
Catholic parents had legitimate concerns about Catholic children attending public schools. Bible reading, school prayer, and even (Protestant) religious education were standard practices nineteenth century America. The bible used, of course, was the King James translation which was all but universal among Protestants of the time but which Catholics found objectionable. Moreover Catholic children frequently faced religious prejudice from their teachers who were most often themselves Protestant and who did not hesitate to say negative things about the Catholic faith in their classrooms. Indeed, there was a strong movement by Catholic leaders in the decades after the civil war up until the Kennedy Presidency to keep Catholics in a cultural ghetto where their faith would be secure from outside influences. Bernard McQuaid, Bishop of Rochester from 1868 until 1909, is a prime example of a bishop who wanted to protect his flock from “the wolves of this world.” Speaking of the desirability of separating Catholics from mainstream society McQuaid explicitly used the image of the Ghettos in which the Jews of Europe had traditionally been confined and, speaking of creating Catholic cultural ghettos declared: If the walls are not high enough, they must be raised; if they are not strong enough, they must be strengthened…"
There was another aspect of creating these Catholic enclaves and this had to do with immigration. While the Irish were, for the most part, already well used to the English Language, most immigrant groups not only were slow to learn English but wanted their children to be educated in their national language. That is to say they not only wanted their children to learn their national language, but to study all their subjects in that language. The Germans were particularly strong on this, but Lithuanians, Hungarians, Italians, and others felt equally strong. They established their own parish churches and they had their own schools in which German was the dominant language.
Inevitably there was a reaction on the part of the Americanized citizens or "yankees" to the vast numbers of immigrants coming into the United States who were not anxious to assimilate, and in several places English-only Education was mandated by law. William D. Hoard was a Wisconsin Dairy Farmer who had never held political office. In a populist movement not unlike the Tea Party today, groups within the Republican party in Wisconsin managed to wrest control of the party away from the state Republican organization and to nominate Hoard for governor. Hoard’s campaign cry was “the Little Schoolhouse, stand by it” and rallied the “Yankee” population of the State to achieve his election in 1890. Hoard went on to say: "We must fight alienism and selfish ecclesiasticism.... The parents, the pastors and the church have entered into a conspiracy to darken the understanding of the children, who are denied by cupidity and bigotry the privilege of even the free schools of the state." In other words, Hoard was declaring that the State was a better guardian of children than their parents. He also was attacking the religious institutions and leaders in which people had put their trust. Now let me make a point that we need to keep in mind and most people fail to understand. In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century the Republicans were the liberal party and this English-only program was a liberal position. It was ardently opposed by German Catholics and Lutherans alike and while it was rare for Catholic Archbishop of Milwaukee Frederick Katzer and Wisconsin and Missouri Synod Lutherans to agree on anything (the two Lutheran Groups have rarely been able to agree between themselves much less with a Catholic—these two synods holding at the time Luther’s position that the Pope was the anti-Christ), the defense of their parochial schools gave them a common cause. The Irish—and this will be crucial for future blogs—the Irish supported the Law. In the event, the opposition of the Churches was the undoing and the law was repealed in 1891. But the issue of parochial schools would remain—more as an internal battle within the Catholic Church and with the civil law. Next Blog will look at Catholics—including some very influential ones—who would support Public Education.