1920: A free Catholic high school proposed for Augusta

Originally Appeared in : 9810-5/10/18

In the first decade of the 20th century the Catholic Church, as well as many of its affiliates, was subject to actual prejudice. In Georgia, where Catholics still constituted a real minority in many areas, this was more often the rule than the exception. At the forefront of opposition to this type of discrimination was the Bulletin of the Catholic Laymen’s Association of Georgia. Editorials appearing in the earliest editions of the CLA publication kept Georgia Catholics informed about what was then going on.


“A Free Catholic High School in Augusta,” a story on the editorial page of the Bulletin on April 1, 1920, was certainly no April Fools Day joke. Its writer observed that “A cheering instance of the unity of purpose that animates the Catholics of Georgia is to be found in the action of those in Augusta who are founding a free boys’ high school.” The article stated that a plan, recently adopted at an enthusiastic meeting of the Catholics of Augusta, had been approved by pastors of each Augusta parish, though which parish would have the school “within its confines” had not yet been determined.


It was noted that not only the pastors of Augusta’s Catholic churches, but also the laymen of the city, had responded to this idea with no thought of which parish would eventually have the high school located on its grounds. This attitude on the part of individual pastors, the editorial writer observed, would establish a precedent that would mean even more than the feat of setting up a new, free high school. It would create a unity that would demonstrate “the new spirit” that has come to the Catholics of Georgia in which the Laymen’s Association had played a major part.


Another editorial on the same page, simply headed “Education,” further stressed the true importance of Catholic education, urging that members of the Church give further thought to the value of such instruction. Unresolved still was the question of how such education would be sustained. There was also the question of how those who weren’t Catholic would react to furthering the influence of the church through largely free Catholic schools. There was no mention of where funding for free high schools, such as the one proposed for Augusta, would come from.


During the same era, there was considerable prejudice against Catholics in other parts of the U.S. Proof of this anti-Catholic feeling was present in several states, notably in Oregon, which at that time had a minority of immigrants, who had settled there, that were Catholic and wanted to keep it that way. A paper written by Nicole L. Mandel in 2012 confirms what Bulletin columnists and editors were writing about in the early 1920s. Titled “The Quiet Bigotry of Oregon’s Compulsory Public Education Act,” it references and confirms anti-immigrant feeling even in a state having fewer non-American settlers than many others.


No wonder Catholics everywhere disagreed with Oregon’s Compulsory Public Education Act of 1922. Inspired by groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, which were continuing their ongoing battle, legal or otherwise, against members of the Catholic Church, the idea of the possible prohibition of operation of Catholic schools was enough to make Catholics nervous. It’s interesting that the hope of establishing a Catholic high school in Augusta in 1920 was not fulfilled until the founding there of Boys Catholic High School by the Marist Brothers in 1939.


Since that now distant time, Catholic schools — both grammar and high school  level — have continued to operate throughout the Diocese of Savannah and elsewhere. They are not “free” as Catholic leaders in Augusta and other places once hoped, but they are still present and exerting influence.      


Columnist Rita H. Delorme is a volunteer in the Diocesan Archives.


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