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.

A major source of information is a letter dated February 28, 1981, written by Sr. Philomena to Sister Mary Joan Weissler at Red Bud, Illinois. Sr. Mary Joan was a member of an order called the Adorers of the Blood of Christ (“adorantes in sanguine Christi“), which has a house in Ruma, Illinois. Sr. Mary Joan apparently was writing a history of the Adorers in Illinois and Sr. Philomena was answering her inquiries.

It affords me great pleasure to assist you in gathering information for the writing of the history of your community which I have known from early childhood. . . .

Your interest and inquiries involve the French Negro families who settled in Prairie Du Rocher [Illinois]. What a great story indeed. This story to be worthwhile and true must begin with the great-grandfathers and slave ancestors of the entire black community who lived in Prairie Du Rocher in 1852 or earlier.

Sister Philomena writes that the Adorers of the Blood of Christ had taken on the mission of teaching in the school for black children in St. Joseph’s Parish in Prairie du Rocher in about 1909. The Adorers discontinued teaching in 1913 or 1914, according to Sr. Philomena.

Historian Fred J. Kerns wrote in 1916 [during the time that Sr. Philomena attended the school as Addie Micheau]:

“I visited the parochial schools at Prairie du Rocher in Randolph County some years ago. I saw many colored children attending the Roman Catholic parochial school on equal terms with the white children and without the slightest sign of segregation. “–Kern, Fred J.,
The First Two Counties of Illinois and Their People,  Papers in Illinois History and Transactions For the Year, Illinois State Historical Society, 1916, pp. 35-42 at 38.

 

Ironically, Kern began the reading of his paper to the Historical Society by citing the following aphorisms:

History is only a confused heap of facts.

Lord Chesterfield

So very difficult a matter it is to trace and find out the truth of anything by history.

Plutarch

What is history but a fable agreed upon.

Napoleon Bonaparte

All history is a lie.

Sir Robert Walpole

Illinois Historical Society Papers, 1916, at 35.

Kern’s supposed observation of black and white children attending school together in Prairie du Rocher is contradicted by a number of sources. For example, P.N. Holm, the Randolph County Superintendent of Schools, wrote in his 1874 report to the state superintendent the following:

“The colored children of country [county?] Districts are taught in the same schools with white children, if at all; but in Sparta, Chester, and Prairie du Rocher they are taught in separate schools. A majority of our people are not in favor of mixed schools; but no serious results have arisen from them yet.”

 Certainly it’s fair to say that a lot of time passed between 1874 and 1916 and further that there is a difference between public schools and private schools. But the Catholic directories further narrow the gap. The Official Catholic Directory of 1912, published by MH Wiltzius Co., clearly shows two separate Catholic schools in Prairie du Rocher. One school has 175 students and six teachers (two male lay teachers and four sisters); the other, which is identified as a school for colored children, has 12 students and one teacher (a sister).

Then, ten years later, The Official Catholic Directory for 1922, published by P.J. Kennedy & Sons, identifies the same schools. One has 177 students, two lay teachers and an unspecified number of sisters; the other is labeled the school for colored children with eight students and one lay teacher. (By the way, family lore tells us that that lay teacher is Julia Lewis Micheau – – Sr. Philomena’s aunt by marriage).

Finally, Sr. Philomena’s 1981 letter itself in several places indicates that there were separate schools for colored children and for everybody else.

Why separate schools is a good question. I never really heard an answer.
Though not the answer Sr. Philomena sought, we must remember that the Church was and is made up  of fragile human beings subject to the same pressures and prejudices as every other earthly  institution.  The question of whether “separate but equal” can ever be “separate and sufficient” had been debated all over the country for decades.
Today, we can thank God that we have the will to provide children a decent school education in our Catholic schools without regard to race.   We are thankful that  our Catholic schools are the most sought-after educational experience  in most communities. We are grateful that they are that way because of their high standards academically and in all  other respects.  And while new challenges arise daily, we know that God will reveal  the answers if we can’t figure them out and we just ask.
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