The first Communion class from St. Mary’s Public School poses in 1965. The Benedictine Sisters finally were allowed to stand for photos. Sisters Christine Rausch and Joan Pokorny are at far left. (Courtesy Queen of Angels Monastery Archive)
The first Communion class from St. Mary’s Public School poses in 1965. The Benedictine Sisters finally were allowed to stand for photos. Sisters Christine Rausch and Joan Pokorny are at far left. (Courtesy Queen of Angels Monastery Archive)
" It seemed natural to be taught by nuns in public school.

" — Benedictine Sister Dorothy Jean Beyer, who was a student at St. Mary’s Public School starting in the late 1940s
MOUNT ANGEL — For a century, one Oregon public school had Benedictine nuns as teachers. The curriculum included religion classes.

The arrangement, which took various forms any of which seem unthinkable now, was for St. Mary’s Public School, just across the road from St. Mary Parish in Mount Angel.

“It was a public school that was like a Catholic school,” said Sister Christine Rausch, who served at St. Mary’s from 1952 to 1978, including a stint as principal.

In 1882, following Benedictine monks who had just established their abbey on a nearby hill, the Benedictine Sisters arrived in Oregon from Switzerland just before the fledgling town of Mount Angel formed its public school district. In 1885, district leaders were desperate for experienced teachers and were impressed by the new influx of educated women. They asked the nuns for help. Sister Placida Casey was the first assigned to the public classroom by the superior. The following year, Sister Gregoria Amrhein joined in.

In 1893, Catholics of Mount Angel constructed a new church and converted their old house of worship into a Catholic school. The sisters naturally turned from the public school to this new parochial project.

But in 1906, the public district came calling again. One sister was sent to teach first grade in the public school while the Catholic school kept plugging along. But by 1920, the public and Catholic schools alike must have been struggling, because leaders of both groups agreed on a merger. That year, the parish built a large new school at a cost of $161,000, but it was a public institution staffed by the sisters. There were 320 students enrolled.

An article in the Capitol Journal of Salem reported that the building belonged to “the Catholic Society of Mount Angel but will be under the leadership of the county superintendent.”

Over the years, there were efforts to change the name of the school from St. Mary’s to something more secular, but the citizenry objected. “I think the reason it has a Catholic name is because the people who owned it wanted it that way,” said Kylie Pine, curator and collections manager at Willamette Heritage Center in Salem.

Large first Communion classes would process from the public school to the church. Other students and parishioners watched, and the Mount Angel Citizens Band played on the church steps. The sisters taught the first communicants how to bow their heads and hold their hands just so.

In 1922, Oregon voters passed an initiative requiring that children attend public schools. It was an effort to get Catholicism out of education. The balloters must have been confused about what to do in Mount Angel, so they created a new bill for the Oregon Legislature to consider. The legislation seemed aimed squarely at the nuns since it forbad the wearing of religious garb by public school teachers. Lawmakers passed the bill in early 1923 and by May, seven Benedictines resigned their St. Mary’s Public School posts rather than remove their habits. Seven lay students from the sisters’ teachers’ college stepped in to finish the term.

In 1924, local Catholics crafted a new plan to sidestep the bigotry. They would create a parochial primary school within the public school building which, after all, had been built by the parish. Grades one through three were taught by Benedictines, who would receive a salary of $30 per month. Older students would be instructed by lay teachers who would teach religion before or after the regular school day. Almost all the children and teachers were Catholic anyway, so the faith had its day despite a law that sought to curtail it.

In 1925, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Oregon school bill, and Catholic education was saved. But the people of Mount Angel were satisfied with their blended system.

“It seemed natural to be taught by nuns in public school,” said Benedictine Sister Dorothy Jean Beyer, who was a student at the school starting in the late 1940s. “Mount Angel was its own little place.”

She recalls about 50 children per grade. In third grade, young Dorothy Jean had Sister Placid as a teacher. The jolly nun would send the girl into town to the cobbler with nuns’ shoes in need of repair.

Classes would get visits from Benedictine monks, including the future Abbot Father Damian Jentges, who once asked the class why salt is part of the baptismal rite. Little Dorothy Jean suggested a link between that and salty tears, an attempt the priest appreciated kindly before giving the correct answer. As an eighth grader, Dorothy Jean was entrusted with counting cash from the parish collection plate.

Sister Joan Pokorny began teaching at the school in the early 1960s. She recalls the 1963 Cuban missile crisis when children went through drills to prepare for nuclear attack. She recalls one student standing and weeping in fear.

Sister Joan also remembers amusing moments. One boy came to her desk and looked at her feet.

“Those look like men’s shoes,” the boy commented.

“These are nuns’ shoes,” Sister Joan responded. “They are special.”

The Benedictines recall the discomfort of hot days in habit and the several times a ball at recess knocked Benedictine headgear askew. The women began to leave the habits in the late 1960s after the Second Vatican Council.

The Catholic primary school within a public school continued until 1968. “The sisters were getting to be fewer and fewer, so we told the school board we would teach religion to the whole school if they would take the primary grades into the public school,” said Sister Joseph Fennimore, who started as a teacher at the school in 1967.

Also, a few parents were objecting to how prominent Catholicism was in the classes. The principal, a Catholic, devised a plan to keep religious education in place.

The public district took over the building but allowed students to be released regularly so the sisters could teach them religion in another part of the school. Non-Catholic students had their own non-denominational classes or study hall.

Despite 1960s culture, there was little strife at St. Mary’s.

“It was a warm and friendly atmosphere,” said Sister Joseph, who taught third grade for three years. “I really have warm feelings.”

Sister Joseph credits lay volunteers for sustaining the program. “You couldn’t have done it without the laity,” she said. “They really supported us.”

By the late 1970s, Sisters Christine Rausch and Alice Ann Schaefer were coordinating and teaching the full-scale released time religion classes. Students met as often as four times per week, never leaving the building. Lay Catholic teachers came to assist.

Sister Christine said in 1978 that the program was thriving because of “the fine cooperation of the public school administration and board.”

Sisters stopped teaching at the school by 1991. Sister Christine said the old setup could still happen if there were younger sisters interested and available.

The Catholic partnership remains strong. In the mid-1990s, the faithful fought back another effort to change the name to Mount Angel Elementary. In 2004, St. Mary Parish held its church picnic on the school grounds.

“The Catholic culture in Mount Angel was very strong and still is,” said Sister Joseph.

Sister Christine confesses that religion was her favorite subject to teach all along. “I liked being able to reach the children,” she said. “Hopefully, something stuck.”

Some of the children the nuns taught are now parents and grandparents who still keep in touch with their former teachers. “The best part is to see these wonderful people grow up in Mount Angel and then come back,” said Sister Joan.