Background of Controversy in Marion County, 1940s

Continuing from a previous blog on the topic of sisters teaching in the public school system in 1925 in Daviess County, a similar situation arose in the 1940s-1950s in Marion County. This situation will be covered in two blog posts. The first gives a background to the situation. This is taken from Sister Ruth Gehres’ “History of the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph.”

In 1937, when Owensboro became a separate diocese, Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph continued to teach in 18 schools in the Archdiocese of Louisville. Of these, 11 were public schools in five counties. Six of these public schools were located in areas of Marion County which were overwhelmingly Catholic: St. Charles Elementary and High School near Lebanon, St. Francis of Assisi Elementary and High School at St. Francis (now Loretto P.O.), Holy Cross Elementary at Holy Cross (Loretto P.O.), Holy Name of Mary Elementary, Calvary (Lebanon P.O.); St. Francis Xavier Elementary, Raywick, and St. Joseph  Elementary, St. Joseph (“Little St. Joe,” Raywick P.O.).

Sister Robert Angela with school children at St. Francis Xavier School in 1933.

Beginning in 1911 (St. Francis Xavier, Raywick), the employment of Catholic sisters to teach in these public schools seems to have been a benefit to all concerned. Pastors and parents were happy to have Catholic teachers for the children. The children profited from the dedication of the sisters, for whom teaching was a part of their heritage. The county superintendents, generally or all Catholic, welcomed this arrangement from both a pedagogical and financial viewpoint. Supporting a number of small country schools (including several small high schools) was expensive. The sisters were qualified and dedicated teachers. Though they received public salaries, they were frugal in their needs, and when there was not enough money to pay for enough teachers, it was not uncommon for two sisters to work for the salary of one. Hours were long (the sisters at St. Francis Xavier, Raywick, for example, were responsible for children from 7:10 a.m. to 6 p.m.); no documents indicate that there was overtime pay.

This arrangement also benefited the sisters and the Ursuline community. Public salaries were higher than those the sisters received in parish schools. Usually the sisters’ home was provided and maintained by the parish. And in future years, many retired (and long-lived) sisters who had taught in public schools received pensions that gave substantial support to the community. Finally, though religious activities and teaching were officially forbidden during school hours, the pastors and sisters found ways to work around this regulation – or to close their eyes to it – so as to provide Catholic children with instruction in their faith. In 1937, Marion County School Superintendent John W. Clarkson – himself a Catholic – is reported to have said that “the Catholics pay taxes and their wishes are to be respected.” [Letter from Sister Mary Edna Robinson to Mother Gonzaga Cotter, May 26, 1937. Mount Saint Joseph Archives.]

Pastors welcomed the arrangement for several reasons. Though the county normally paid only a nominal sum, if anything, to lease the buildings, the pastor was relieved of the financial burden of a parochial school. But the school remained on church grounds, with religious teachers. And because all parties from the county school board down to the parents and children were overwhelmingly Catholic, no one seems to have become concerned with a less than strict interpretation of the law forbidding religious teaching and activities in public schools. Some persons who went to these schools say they were not aware that they were not going to parochial schools…or that they didn’t know what the difference was between parochial and public schools. Children who were not Catholic, it seems, either participated in religious activities with the Catholic students or were excused from them. For some time, there is no indication of concern about this matter. The sisters were also available to teach catechism in the parish-owned school building during the summer. One document in our Archives describes the practice of sisters teaching two extra months after the eight-month public school year ended. In this case, the school was considered a parochial school during these two months.

In the early 40s, however, the question of “garbed women” teaching in public schools became headline material as lawsuits arose in many other parts of the country. By this time the superintendent in Marion County was Hugh Spalding – a strong Catholic man who had been a student – in public schools – of the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph.

Mother Teresita

In September 1941, a letter from Spalding to Ursuline superior Mother Teresita indicates that legal problems were brewing. Spalding reflects that it might be better to conduct religious instruction in buildings other than those used “for public school purposes.” But he realizes that this might “necessitate a great deal of inconvenience,” and declines from making even a suggestion that this be done. “We are leaving this matter up to your best judgment.” The letter goes on to point out that no law can keep a civil community from assembling in a public (or publicly rented) building “for any peaceful purpose.” The letter ends, however, with a caution against “becoming too lax, lest serious inconveniences be caused if difficulties do arise.” [Letter from Hugh Spalding to Mother Teresita Thompson, September 22, 1941. Mount Saint Joseph Archives.]

Attached to this communication was a message that Superintendent Spalding had sent to teachers in the Marion County schools. It begins by noting that “some question has been raised recently about the legality of the way in which religious activities are carried on in some of our schools after, or before, school hours.” Though he expresses the belief that the arrangement for religious education is legal, he advises several steps to eliminate criticism: 1) a definite break between the religion period and the regular school day; 2) no religion grades on county report cards; 3) no religion credit on high school records; 4) time spent in religious services not counted as part of public school time; 5) during religious activities, supervision of children not participating. [Attachment to letter from Hugh Spalding to Mother Teresita Thompson, September 22, 1941. Mount Saint Joseph Archives.]

Between 1942 and 1946, Hugh Spalding was absent from his office, serving in the armed forces during World War II. Assistant Superintendent Mary Cyril Mudd – a graduate of Mount Saint Joseph Junior College – was in charge of the office during this time. A letter from Mudd in fall 1943 to then-superior Mother Laurine refers with some anxiety to a lawsuit and the question of “whether or not the Sisters were guilty, as accused, of teaching the Catholic mode of worship in the public schools.” [Letter from Mary Cyril Mudd to Mother Laurine Sheeran, October 30, 1943. Mount Saint Joseph Archives.]

A description of the lawsuit is found in a 1953 Courier-Journal article: “In 1944, Protestants took the School Board to court and lost their case. The Circuit Court ruled that hiring of nuns and renting of buildings from parishes was legal, provided religion was not taught in the public schools.”  [Ora Spaid, “Bradfordsville High Doomed; Board Blamed, The Courier-Journal, Louisville, Oct. 20, 1953.] Archival material at Mount Saint Joseph indicates that Msgr. Pitt and Archbishop Floersh and his lawyer were in consultation about this case.

Mother Laurine

Though the case itself did not succeed in removing the sisters, it did have a clear effect. At some time before July 1945, a court injunction forbade the expenditure of public funds in schools where religion was taught. This was followed by a formal resolution to the same effect by the Marion County School Board on October 3, 1945. Writing to Cyril Mudd on July 30, Mother Laurine seeks to clarify the effect of this injunction on the teaching of religion on school days. Transportation of students was a particular question, since when children rode county-financed buses, their time on buses was considered part of the public school day. When children rode private (parish-financed) buses, they were not technically in school until they entered the school building, allowing for religious instruction in the church or other parish building before the official school day. In her letter to Cyril Mudd, Mother Laurine expresses anxiety about pastors who “have insisted that Sisters will teach religion as in the past, even though they go to court for doing so – but we do not want this.”  [Letter of Mother Laurine Sheeran to Mary Cyril Mudd, July 30, 1945. Archives.] In a later letter, Mother Laurine states, “We want to abide by the decision of the Board….” [Letter of Mother Laurine Sheeran to Hugh Spalding, March 16, 1946. Mount Saint Joseph Archives.]

Between 1946 and 1953, the controversy seems to have been slumbering. Ursuline Sisters and others continued teaching in public schools in Marion and other counties. Arrangements for religious instruction for Catholic children in these schools followed the released time program authorized by the Kentucky legislature.

In 1951, a controversy arose in Clementsville (Casey County), where a public elementary school and a parochial high school both occupied a building that also housed the church. (Ursulines of Mount Saint Joseph also taught here.) An appeal to the attorney general by the protesters brought a response that found the arrangement legal, although there were continuing questions about and objections to this judgment.


  1. Elizabeth Ann Skaggs Clemons

    I really enjoyed this article. I started school at Peonia school Clarkson,ky about 1944. The Ursuline Sisters from The Mount taught there. I just wondered what year they started teaching there in Grayson County.

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