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Rachel LuJanuary 17, 2024
Archbishop John Ireland was the first archbishop of St. Paul, Minn., serving from 1888 through 1918. (Photo courtesy of the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis)

On the roof of a parking garage in the heart of St. Paul, Minn., there is a place where a visitor can take in a sweeping, panoramic view that symbolizes the relationship of church and state.

To the right stands the Minnesota State Capitol, with its massive marble dome inspired by St. Peter’s Basilica. To the left stands the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. Paul, open since 1915, the final jewel in the crown in the remarkable life of Archbishop John Ireland. Rising majestically from the bluff of St. Anthony’s Hill, the cathedral claims the highest ground in the city as it looks down on both the Capitol and the financial district. This is not an accident. Archbishop Ireland wanted the world to know that Jesus Christ outranks both Mammon and Caesar.

Archbishop Ireland wanted to negotiate a political arrangement that would enable taxpayer money to be channeled into parochial schools.

Born in 1838 in County Kilkenny in Ireland, the future archbishop of St. Paul immigrated to the United States and settled in St. Paul with his parents in 1852. A year later, he was sent to Rome to study for the priesthood. Ordained in 1861 for what was then the Diocese of St. Paul, he became rector of the diocesan cathedral in 1867 and bishop of the diocese in 1884.

Even today, the Twin Cities have Archbishop Ireland to thank for many of their most significant Catholic institutions, including St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary and the University of St. Thomas. In 1888, Rome elevated St. Paul to a metropolitan see with Archbishop Ireland at its head. From a Catholic perspective, at least, it is fair to say that Archbishop Ireland put Minnesota on the map.

Saint Paul Cathedral
The Cathedral of Saint Paul in St. Paul, Minn. (Wikimedia Commons)

Archbishop Ireland’s life was not an unbroken success story, however. He failed utterly in his mostcherished project. In the 1890s, Ireland threw himself into an energetic effort to pilot a new model for Catholic education. He wanted to negotiate a political arrangement that would enable taxpayer money to be channeled into parochial schools. The project generated massive controversy and ultimately failed, to the detriment of Minnesota schoolchildren and the archbishop’s reputation.

More than a century later, however, American Catholics again find themselves thinking about Catholic schools, educational choice and the possibilities of public funding. We are living through an era of expanding school choice, and recent examples like St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School in Oklahoma have reopened the possibility that Catholic schooling might become a recognized form of publicly financed education. It would be a vindication of John Ireland if it turned out that now, more than a century after his death, the hour had finally come for his most cherished plan.

It would be a vindication of John Ireland if, more than a century after his death, the hour had finally come for his most cherished plan.

Ireland’s Tenure

Archbishop Ireland was a man of boundless energy and deep conviction. Very few have worked so assiduously to ensure that the Catholic Church was taken seriously, in St. Paul or throughout the United States. Ireland was also a fervent patriot, convinced that the United States was a great nation on its way to global prominence. In our own time, this view may seem unremarkable—indeed, many of Archbishop Ireland’s speeches sound like something one might hear today at a Fourth of July fireworks show or from the stage of a national political convention. For a late-19th-century prelate, though, this attitude wasquite distinctive.

This was an era when the United States was still classified by Rome as mission territory, and the great Catholic minds of Europe were still vociferously debating the relative merits of monarchy and liberal democracy. The archbishop of St. Paul was not conflicted. When Ireland died at the ripe age of 80, John Courtney Murray, S.J., was still a child, and the Second Vatican Council was nearly half a century away. Nevertheless, Ireland confidently believed that the church should bless liberal democracy—while also working to draw out its greatest strengths and temper its defects. In particular, he hoped that the American church could lead the way, bringing transcendent truths to the New World and political ones back to the Old.

History has vindicated many of Ireland’s views. The United States did indeed become a geopolitical power within a generation of Ireland’s death. Much of the world accepted liberal principles as a foundation for peace and prosperity, and the church gave her blessing to democracy. In his time, Ireland was a controversialist; today he seems commonsensical.

Ireland was all the more unusual among Catholic prelates in that he was a flag-waving member of the Republican Party, having served as a chaplain in the Union Army during the Civil War. Today, his commitment to the abolition of slavery is clearly praiseworthy. Many of his signature projects have likewise stood the test of time. His cathedral still stands proudly, and the University of St. Thomas, founded by Ireland in 1885, is now the largest private college in the state of Minnesota. John Ireland remains, to this day, the most illustrious churchman who served in the North Star state.

Ireland believed that the church should bless liberal democracy—while also working to draw out its greatest strengths and temper its defects.

Ireland’s Educational Plan

Ireland was always known for his optimism and tenacity. But considering the level of anti-Catholic bigotry in late 19th-century America, it is remarkable that he believed it possible to secure state money for Catholic schools. There has been a Catholic presence in the United States from colonial days, but in the 1800s Catholics were still an unloved minority in many parts of the country. In Archbishop Ireland’s time, the country became infected with the mania of the Know-Nothing Party, which railed against alleged “Romanist” conspiracies to undermine the United States government. The Civil War broke the nativist fever, but afterward the temperature began to rise again as Catholics streamed in from Ireland, Italy, Germany and Eastern Europe.

In 1875, James Gillespie Blaine, then the leader of the Republican minority in the U.S. House, proposed an expansion to the First Amendment of the Constitution that forbade placing public funds “under the control of any religious sect.” Everyone understood what this meant. Mr. Blaine was trying to ensure that public money could not be used to fund Catholic institutions, especially parochial schools. Religion as such was not the key issue in this case, because it was quite normal at the time for public schoolchildren to recite prayers and study the King James Bible. The call for a more rigid separation of church and state would rise in the later 20th century. In the 19th, Mr. Blaine spoke mainly for a Protestant majority that was anxious to limit Catholic influence, preserving their own control over state institutions and the culture at large.

Mr. Blaine’s amendment narrowly failed in the U.S. Senate, but across subsequent decades, versions of it were adopted in 38 individual states. The public’s attitude could hardly have been clearer. A less dogged campaigner than Archbishop Ireland would have quickly concluded that it would be quite impossible to secure state funds for Catholic schools. Archbishop Ireland had something of a taste for uphill battles.

Ireland firmly believed that it was necessary for Catholic children to attend parochial schools. He had no wish to keep Catholics cloistered in insular parish communities; quite the contrary, he warmly encouraged Catholics in all states of life to integrate into American culture and be the salt of the earth. However, he was firmly opposed to secular schools. He explained his concerns in a speech delivered in 1890 to the National Educational Association of the United States, warning that the secular school...

treats of land and sea, but not of Heaven; it speaks of statesmen and warriors, but not of God and Christ; it tells how to attain success in this world, but says nothing about the world beyond the grave. The pupil sees and listens, and insensibly forms the conclusion that religion is of minor importance.

Addressing nonbelievers, Ireland promised: “I will not impose upon them my religion, which is Christianity. But let them not impose upon me and my fellow Christians their religion, which is secularism. Secularism is a religion of its kind, and usually a very loud-spoken and intolerant religion.”

“I will not impose upon them my religion, which is Christianity. But let them not impose upon me and my fellow Christians their religion, which is secularism."

A Bold Experiment

Archbishop Ireland wanted to ensure that parochial schools were available to all Catholic children, even the poorest. But as new waves of immigrants arrived from Europe, there were many poor Catholic families. Keeping the lights on was a challenge, so Ireland looked for clever solutions. In August 1891, a parochial school in Faribault, Minn., informed the local school district that it was on the brink of closing. The school’s financial situation had become unworkable. This was a problem for the school district as well, since it meant that the forthcoming school year would see a large influx of new students from the Catholic school for which the district was not prepared.

With coaching from Archbishop Ireland, the pastor, the Rev. James Conry, made a bold suggestion. He offered to place his school under the authority of the local district, with the understanding that the lease on the building (obtained for just a dollar a year) would only apply during school hours. It would function like a public school most of the time, following a curriculum similar to what was offered in secular schools. However, school hours would be tailored to enable morning Mass, religious instruction, and any other Catholic-specific experiences to take place outside the official school day.

The suggestion was modeled on an arrangement that had worked in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and it seemed to have been a success there. With its back against the wall, the Faribault school district agreed to try the same experiment. Shortly afterward, a cash-strapped pastor in nearby Stillwater, Minn., found himself in a similar situation, and at Archbishop Ireland’s urging, successfully pitched a similar proposal to his own local school district. By odd coincidence, both schools sat atop hills and were referred to as “the Hill School.” In a literal sense, at least, Minnesota Catholics held the high ground.

In the short term, Ireland’s plan seemed to be succeeding; he had his publicly funded Catholic schools. But there was considerable opposition from the start from both the wider Protestant culture and fellow Catholic clergymen, especially the Jesuits and some other bishops, following the lead of Archbishop Michael Corrigan of New York. They feared Ireland would simply deliver Catholic schools into the hands of unsympathetic Protestants, jeopardizing the American church’s ongoing efforts to build up a thriving network of parochial schools.

Pope Leo XIII was amenable to Ireland’s strategy, but there were limits to how far the church could compromise with the secular state.

Meanwhile, in the secular press, suspicious Protestants had no difficulty recognizing Archbishop Ireland’s plan for what it was: an attempt to make taxpayers foot the bill for schools in which Catholic children studied under the direction of habit-wearing, rosary-bead-clicking nuns.

Ireland soon found himself embroiled in ecclesiastical controversy and was compelled to travel to Rome to discuss the matter personally with Pope Leo XIII, who was also a proponent of liberal democracy. The meeting went well; the pope was sympathetic. Leo was himself working to persuade French traditionalists to be more receptive to liberal democracy. The two men seemed to understand each other, and in 1892, the pope gave his assent to Ireland’s plan. Five cardinals assigned to a special commission in Rome formally decreed that the Faribault and Stillwater schools “could be tolerated.” Archbishop Ireland expressed his appreciation by traveling to France to extol the benefits of republican governance. To all appearances, he had won the day.

The victory was fleeting. The Minnesota arrangement broke down almost immediately as the surrounding communities, then the nation, became aware of what was happening. Poughkeepsie’s school had somehow managed to stay under the radar, but Archbishop Ireland’s personal involvement with the Faribault-Stillwater plan effectively guaranteed that the Minnesota schools would attract public notice.

Stillwater’s school was first pressed to remove all religious pictures, then to stop teaching catechism altogether. The presence of nuns in full habit was hotly debated. In Faribault, the Hill School lasted only two years before the district tried to transfer many of the teachers to other public schools in the region. They refused, and the entire arrangement was terminated.

Meanwhile, the American bishops fought bitterly among themselves as curial officials struggled to make sense of the controversy. Pope Leo XIII reiterated that he was amenable to Ireland’s strategy, but he also felt considerable pressure to acknowledge that there were limits to how far the church could compromise with the secular state. The uproar over Catholic schooling was clearly in the background of the encyclical “Testem Benevolentiae,” a carefully calibrated document that cautions against “the confounding of liberty with license” and against overconfidence in efforts to reconcile the “wisdom and authority of the church” with the mores of the secular state.

Catholic schools and universities continue to build vibrant communities where the faith can flourish. Nevertheless, many are struggling.

A Separate System

In retrospect, it seems obvious that the Faribault-Stillwater plan could not succeed. The hastily negotiated compromises were unworkable, requiring a tricky legal and cultural balancing act that could not be achieved when so many parties on all sides were rooting for it to fail. As Marvin R. O’Connell, Ireland’s biographer, makes clear, both Catholics and Protestants in the 19th century seemed largely to agree that Catholic children should not be in public schools. That being the case, it is hardly surprising that Catholics ended up pouring their energy into the construction of their own private, parochial school system.

Those efforts have yielded some excellent fruits, even though Catholics had to build that system in often very straitened circumstances. Since the time of the nation’s founding, parochial schools have provided educational alternatives for a wide range of students who, for various reasons, were not welcomed or properly served by the public school system. This was made possible by the priests and religious who dedicated their lives to these schools, often working tirelessly and living frugally.

Today the laity have assumed many of the roles previously filled by priests and men and women religious, but Catholic schools and universities continue to build vibrant communities where the faith can flourish. Nevertheless, many are struggling.

As Archbishop Ireland recognized, it is difficult for Catholics to maintain their own independent educational system while paying taxes to support public schools. Many families who would prefer Catholic schools are forced by financial necessity to choose secular schools or to homeschool instead. Beyond that, there are obvious drawbacks to a system that forces Catholics to divide their institution-building efforts. But the state has a proper interest in educating its citizens, and obviously Catholics should be properly concerned about the education of all children and not just their own.

Oklahoma recently approved a plan to open the nation’s first explicitly Catholic charter school.

Lessons Learned

The United States is presently in an era of major school reform. Nine states (Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Utah) have now passed laws extending eligibility for school choice programs to all students. Many other states are experimenting with educational savings accounts, which allow parents considerable discretion in deciding how money on their children’s education should be spent.

Also, Oklahoma recently approved a plan to open the nation’s first explicitly Catholic charter school. A lawsuit has been filed challenging the school’s constitutionality, but at present it is set to open in 2024.

This may be yet another instance in which Archbishop Ireland was ahead of his time. He believed that publicly funded Catholic education was consonant with the American project, and it may be that the American public is finally prepared to agree. This could open a new era, in which Catholic schooling is a possibility for all American families, and Catholic educators have the opportunity to explore possibilities never before open to them in this country. This could also open opportunities for Catholics to serve their compatriots in a new way, by building schools rooted in their own tradition that non-Catholics may also wish to attend. Archbishop Ireland would have been delighted by the idea that American Catholics might serve not just their own children, but also the nation at large, by building excellent schools. Still, if we hope to succeed where such an indomitable institution-builder failed, it would be wise to learn from his mistakes.

Is the time finally right for the realization of Archbishop Ireland’s vision?

First, it is important to build consensus and support when launching a school. Archbishop Ireland tried to skip this step by appealing to the immediate interests of decision-making parties. He saved local school boards money and promoted Pope Leo’s political agenda, hoping that that would be enough. It wasn’t. The schools became a cultural battleground, which is never good for students. Instead of looking for too-clever-by-half legal solutions to every problem, educational reformers need to build enthusiasm for their initiatives among teachers, parents and community members. Not every critic can be satisfied, but schools are much more likely to thrive when their community wants them to.

Second, Catholic schools should try to retain their autonomy as much as they reasonably can. Money always comes with strings attached, but a school will struggle to maintain its stability and mission if it is constantly subject to the whims of changing policy and public opinion. This was the problem that ultimately doomed Archbishop Ireland’s initiative. It is worth fighting to preserve the school’s own hiring and admissions standards as well as to retain a high measure of curricular control. The Faribault and Stillwater schools likely could not have won those concessions, but by asking upfront they could have at least clarified the extent of the challenge.

In our own time, this challenge will need to be negotiated on the ground, with school administrators, policymakers and parents continually stressing the benefits of local autonomy for schools. Recent battles in education have reminded us how fraught school environments can become when teachers, parents and policymakers are continually at war with one another. Cultivating a greater respect for schools’ autonomy would surely be in the interest of students.

Finally, school reformers should focus on the practical issues. Archbishop Ireland’s schools might have succeeded for at least a longer period if they had managed to keep a lower profile. Instead they became a flashpoint for raging culture wars, a problem that seems to recur in every age. If Ireland had worked harder to defuse those controversies and had focused energy instead on prudent management and community-building, the schools might have had a better chance. Those things are just as essential today.

Archbishop Ireland was an enthusiastic believer in the American Dream. He wanted Catholics to be patriotic Americans, and he believed that the church had an important role to play in building the United States into a great nation. But he also believed that Catholic schooling was essential. Without it, children’s sensibilities would be shaped by secular mores, not the faith. These concerns seem just as reasonable today as they were in 1890.

Catholics are still a minority in America today, but the prejudices of Ireland’s time have softened considerably. Is the time finally right for the realization of Ireland’s vision? His cathedral still looks down from the bluff, as magnificent as ever. Perhaps the man is looking down from a still-higher place and smiling.

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