Historian at MCC 50th anniversary celebration -- Catholics had major role in bringing education to the Midwest


Committed Catholics from all over Europe labored against brutal odds to bring education and faith formation to what is now Missouri and surrounding states.

Monsignor Michael Witt, a priest of the St. Louis archdiocese and an authority on local Church history, led a break-out session on Catholic education during the Missouri Catholic Conference’s 50th anniversary celebration Oct. 7 in Jefferson City.

He spoke of how the Church advanced all levels of education in the upper Midwest, especially in and near St. Louis, decades ahead of any institutions.

He began with a survey of Spanish and French explorers, followed by the early 19th-century efforts of Bishop William Louis Valentine DuBourg and Bishop Joseph Rosati to bring missionary priests and sisters to serve within the vast Louisiana Territory.

That area would eventually become all or part of 13 U.S. states.

The Church’s early efforts to educate and evangelize in this area began with the people who were here before the European settlers arrived, including the Potawatomi and other indigenous people.

Msgr. Witt spoke of the establishment in 1818 of what would become Saint Louis University, as well as the Vincentian seminary in Perryville, the first such institutions of higher learning west of Georgetown University.

He told stories about the efforts of Bishop DuBourg, Bishop Rosati and Archbishop Peter Richard Kenrick to draw religious orders from all over Europe to serve the people scattered throughout a large swath of the continent.

“Passing on the old faith in a new land: how is that going to be done?” said Msgr. Witt. “You have to take care of these people and their children.”

There being no railroads and few roads in the early days, the area’s earliest European educators traversed these great distances mostly by river.

Msgr. Witt told of the arrival of De LaSalle Christian Brothers, Vincentian Fathers, Jesuit priests, Sisters of Charity, Ursuline nuns and many others who helped lay the groundwork for Church life and Catholic education in the area.

He told of how Bishop Rosati met Father Joseph Melcher while visiting Rome. A son of an Austrian diplomat, who spoke German, Italian and Latin, Fr. Melcher was in the Eternal City seeking to become a missionary in the United States.

The priest eventually became vicar general and wound up attracting German-speaking priests, seminarians and religious sisters from all over Europe to help minister to the throngs of immigrants who were making Missouri their new home in the 1840s.

Msgr. Witt noted that parochial education played an essential in passing the faith along to new generations of Catholics, in cities and rural areas alike.

For instance, “in what is now the Diocese of Jefferson City there are lots and lots of small cities and towns that very early on set down roots and had parochial schools,” he noted.

He spoke of the arrival in St. Louis of Loreto nuns, Sisters of St. Joseph of Carandelet, Ursuline sisters from Hungary and Germany, Sister of Mercy from Ireland, School Sisters of Notre Dame from Germany and many other orders and congregations.

He spoke of Father Franz Goller, who was pastor of Ss. Peter and Paul parish in St. Louis in the closing decades of the 19th century, when that parish’s school had 1,300 students.

A vehement advocate of Catholic education, Fr. Goller became a behind-the-scenes lobbyist for Catholic education during the U.S. Catholic bishops’ Third Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884.

Due in part to Fr. Goller’s machinations, the bishops enacted a policy to open Catholic schools in every parish that could afford one, and the sending of Catholic students to neighboring Catholic schools in the case of parishes that could not.

Msgr. Witt also talked about Father Daniel S. Phelan, who with his brother in the Missouri House of Representatives, championed the cause of having the state’s education tax dollars follow each student to the public or private school of his or her parents’ choice.

State Rep. Michael Phelan in 1870 introduced legislation to that effect. There was a huge anti-Catholic backlash, which led to the passage of a state constitutional amendment barring any kind of state aid to religious schools.

“In other words, Missouri had a ‘Blaine Amendment’ before Congressman James Blaine ever thought about the Blaine Amendment,” Msgr. Witt quipped.

The Missouri Supreme Court invoked that amendment a century later in ending the state’s longstanding practice of paying for textbooks for non-religious subjects in parochial schools.

The U.S. Supreme Court essentially struck down the amendment earlier this year in its Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer decision.

Msgr. Witt also told the story of Father James Henry, who in 1848 figured out how to derail a coalition of socialist revolutionaries’ plan over the educational system in St. Louis and close down its Catholic schools.

Near the end of the session, Msgr. Witt discussed the mid-20th-century integration and “suburbanization” of Catholic education in Missouri’s major metropolitan areas, along with the decreasing number of religious sisters and brothers whose communities staffed Catholic schools in generations past.

He ended by pointing out how generations of people with holy purposes had overcome great obstacles and some outright failures in order to lead young people to Christ while helping them become educated, productive citizens.

“So how do we carry forward that great legacy with all the challenges we’re now facing?” he said.