A 1925 School Controversy

In 1925, an attempt was made in Daviess County, in the western part of the Louisville Diocese, to lease parish school buildings to the county board of education for use as public schools. As in Marion and several other Kentucky counties, the teachers in these public schools would be sisters (Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph), who would be paid public school salaries.

The schools in question were at St. Joseph, Knottsville, and St. Lawrence – historic Catholic settlements near Owensboro. According to a series of articles in the Owensboro Messenger, public schools had existed previously in all three communities. When practically all of the students began attending the parish schools established in each community, however (St. William, Knottsville, 1912; St. Alphonsus, St. Joseph, 1913 [after operating earlier 1901-05]; and St. Lawrence, Daviess County, 1920), the public schools were discontinued. Between these three schools there were over 500 students. Although their children were not in public schools, the parents paid school taxes. Acting from this basis, the communities proposed that the parish school buildings be leased to the county (for “$1 and other considerations”), which would pay the teachers and maintain the buildings. If these buildings were not leased from the parishes, there were no other buildings to use as schools. The county would be required to build 3 buildings, which would cost approximately $6000 each, in addition to furnishings and providing teachers, something the county had not been able to do.

Mother Agnes O’Flynn was Mother Superior at the time of this controversy.

As was the custom, the school trustee for each area (one person per sub-district) appointed the teachers for that area’s school. The three trustees proposed hiring ten Ursuline Sisters, all certified to teach in public schools, for the three “new” public schools. (Probably these were some of the same sisters who taught in parish schools in these same buildings in previous years.) Three of the nuns filed their applications in due form as provided under the school laws, the petition avers, and applied for positions as teachers in the county schools, having theretofore taken the required school examination and been awarded certificate to teach in the schools of the commonwealth.

The county board of education rejected this proposal not because of the building arrangements or the qualifications of the Ursuline teachers, but because of the “garb” that these teachers would wear in the classroom. This so-called “Nun Problem” was taken to the state superintendent of public instruction, then to the state attorney general, who ruled that no law excluded Catholic nuns from teaching in public schools and noted that buildings owned by denominational groups might be used for public instruction as long as they were under the absolute control of the school board and “free from any sectarian influence.” The Daviess County board – by a 3-2 vote – refused to appoint the sisters on the basis that religious garb in itself constituted a sectarian influence. When the St. Joseph sub-district trustee (and seven co-plaintiffs) filed a suit to force the school board to hire the sisters he had rightfully appointed, legal aid for the school board came from the Kentucky Educational League, a Louisville-based organization that professed opposition to sectarian influence, including sectarian garb – whether of Ku Klux Klan, Masons, Lutherans, or Catholic nuns – in public classrooms.

St. Alphonsus students in 1930 with Sister Lucita Greenwell.

As the struggle progressed, it took on a decidedly harsh religious tone. Finally the plaintiffs – the St. Joseph sub-district trustee and seven fathers of children of that sub-district – requested dismissal of the case. In a conciliatory statement professing their desire for peace and “good fellowship with all men,” they abandoned the attempt to maintain a public school taught by Ursuline Sisters at St. Joseph. Evidently, the other two sub-districts also abandoned this plan. On Friday, September 18, 1925, the sisters wrote this in the community annals, “The reasons for withdrawal, as presented by Hon. LaVega Clements, were pronounced ‘A masterpiece of the Spirit of Christianity.’ The three schools will open as Parochial.” St Alphonsus school opened on September 21 with 85 students and three teachers, and the other two schools opened soon after.

Ursuline Sisters continued to teach in the parish schools of these communities for many more years. Within 20 years, the question of sisters teaching in public schools would arise again, in a much more serious manner, in Marion County. Stay tuned for a future blog on this topic!