Although the Catholic Bishops of the United States had supported parochial schools since the First Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1840, many parish priests and even a few bishops were entirely content with Catholics attending public schools. Where bias against Catholics was non-existent or not particularly high, clergy could not see the problem with the public schools that priests and parents were having when anti-Catholics controlled the school boards. In some places Catholics were excused from bible reading and prayers; in others their attendance was required despite the protests of parents and pastors.
Probably the most outspoken Churchman in favor of the Public Schools was John Ireland (1838-1918). Ireland was Irish born but his family had immigrated to the United States—to Saint Paul, Minnesota—when he was still a child. Entering the seminary, Ireland was sent to France for his education. This French education exposed him to the liberal strain of French Catholicism which made him suspicious of Rome. Nevertheless, Ireland was made bishop coadjutor of St. Paul in 1875 and ordinary (bishop of the diocese) in 1884. In 1888 St. Paul was raised to the status of an Archdiocese with Ireland as its first Archbishop. Ireland favored public schools and allowed several parochial schools of his archdiocese to be sold to the State of Minnesota with priests and nuns as salaried teachers who taught religion only after regular school hours. That arrangement would never stand in civil court today but it was a commodious arrangement for both Church and School Boards in several Minnesota towns of that time.
There were probably several points of agenda beneath Ireland’s stance on Public Schools. Ireland was a convinced liberal and an ardent Republican. (Remember that in our last blog I had told you that in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the Republican Party was the Liberal Party.) As part of his liberal and Republican stance, Ireland was opposed to foreign-language schools and wished to require English as the only language of instruction. Ireland was opposed to Europeanization under any and all circumstances. Immigrants were to be Americanized as soon as possible. He saw these German (or other language) parochial schools as one of the forces that were preventing the new generation from becoming truly American.
Ireland said in one speech:
"The public schools are our pride and glory. The Republic of the United States has solemnly affirmed its resolve that within its borders no cloud of ignorance shall settle upon the minds of the children of its people. In furnishing the means to accomplish this result its generosity knows no limits. The free school of America! Withered be the hand raised in sign of its destruction."
The Germans, for their part, had an ally in their cause for German language schools in Cardinal Melchers, the Archbishop of Cologne. Melchers is himself a very complex figure but he had extreme credibility among the conservative forces of the Church in Europe—indeed among European Catholics in General. He had been arrested by Bismark during the German Kulturkampf for his defense of the Catholic Church against Bismark’s secularist and anti-Catholic administration and would have been deported to German territory in what is now Poland had he not instead fled to the Netherlands. Consequently he had the status of a living martyr.
Melchers, like many Germans both in Germany and the United States, saw the German population of the American Republic first and foremost as Germans, not as Americans. One priest from Germany who came to America to minister to German immigrants wrote: A German is a German although he has shaken off the dust of his fatherland and everywhere a true German longs for a greater Germany. I am one of those who want to remain a German. This attitude was not in accord with Ireland’s integrationist philosophy and up and through World War I German Americans would be held suspect for their allegiance. Melchers delated (made an official complaint) Ireland to Rome for his statement on Public Schools.
Melchers had no right, of course, to interfere in matters outside his own diocese, but seeing the German Immigrants as Germans believed that he had jurisdiction over them or at least the responsibility of being a sort of “Cardinal-Protector” for them. The interference of European bishops in American dioceses regarding matters of immigrants from their home countries and dioceses infuriated American bishops, but it betrayed a lack of clear understanding regarding Church authority.
The image today is Cardinal Melchers, Archbishop of Cologne