This week is Catholic Schools Week. And February is Black History Month. This presents us with a great opportunity to explore some issues common to both.
African-Americans and Catholic schools have had a mutually enriching experience in America. But the relationship has not been without its bumps. I’ve chosen a unique microcosm by which to explore this relationship: the education of the French Negroes of Illinois.
Randolph County, Illinois, is situated just east of St. Louis on the bank of the Mississippi River. It is one of Illinois’ first two counties, the other being St. Clair County, just to the north. Randolph County contains such historic towns as Kaskaskia, Sparta, Chester (the county seat), and Prairie du Rocher.
At Prairie du Rocher, the first settlement was Fort Chartres in about 1721. St. Joseph’s Catholic Church was established there about the same time. Then, in 1722, Philip Francois Renault, acting on behalf of King Louis XV, arrived in the area to explore for gold and silver. On his way to the Illinois country, Renault had stopped at Santo Domingo to purchase 500 slaves to do the heavy lifting of his precious metals exploration.
Renault and his expedition spent 20 years looking for gold and silver and finding none. He did however find lead which is still mined to this day in eastern Missouri and Southern Illinois. In 1742, Renault departed the Illinois country and headed back to France. He left behind the slaves and their descendants.
The African-descended people Renault left in the Illinois country were largely Roman Catholic, of course, because of their French cultural orientation.
It is said that the black people who lived in Randolph County, Illinois, and Ste. Genevieve County, Missouri, over the next 150 years were descendants of these slaves.
Writing in the local diocesan publication The Messenger in 1984, Father Theodore Siekmann, former pastor of St. Joseph parish at Prairie du Rocher, observed:
Philip Renault and other French Catholics of his day aimed to be humane. They did provide for the basic needs of these people. They respected their dignity as children of God, endowed with immortal souls, and deserving of spiritual care and attention.
One of the regarded values of the French Catholics was education. Unlike the English and Scots-Irish slaveholders in North America, the French Catholics had no issue with educating their slaves. Father Siekmann writes, “the black Catholics in Prairie du Rocher had always attended Mass and received the sacraments along with the white people on an amicable basis. Indeed two of the black girls became Religious sisters, and were a credit to their religious institutes.” These two girls were Emma Micheau and her aunt, Adelaide Francis Micheau, both of whom joined the Oblate Sisters of Providence after a basic education in the Catholic school at Prairie du Rocher. “Addie” became Sister Celestine and Emma was Sister Mary Philomena.
Much of the history of the Catholic school at Prairie du Rocher can be pieced together from Catholic directories, Illinois state documents, oral history provided by the now-elderly last generation of French Negroes to actually reside in Prairie du Rocher, and an exchange of letters between Sister Mary Philomena and a sister of one of the orders which taught at the school.
One very useful source is the Sadlier’s Catholic Directory, Almanac and Ordo (an “ordo” is “a list of offices and feasts of the Roman Catholic Church for each day of the year.” http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ordo).
Sadlier’s tells us that from 1870 to about 1896, the Catholic school-age population in Prairie du Rocher fluctuated between 75 students in 1870 to a peak of 150 pupils in 1896. Sadlier’s also indicates that during most of this period, the church and the school in Prairie du Rocher were under the jurisdiction of the Diocese of Alton, Illinois. In 1887, the Diocese of Belleville was established and Catholic institutions in Randolph County came within its jurisdiction.
According to Sadlier’s, during most of this time, the instruction was conducted by a “secular” teacher. In 1896, however, the Sisters of St. Dominic began to lead the instruction at the school in Prairie du Rocher.