California's first Catholic school sparks controversy by removing statues

Credit: Roman Sigaev via Shutterstock.
Credit: Roman Sigaev via Shutterstock.

.- Parents are concerned after a California Catholic school has removed several religious statues from its campus in an effort to be more inclusive of other faiths.

San Domenico School in San Anselmo, California removed several religious statues from display on campus, donating some and relocating others to storage.

Many parents and members of the school community expressed worry  that this could signify an erasure of the school’s Catholic identity.

Shannon Fitzpatrick, whose 8 year-old son attends the school, voiced her objections to the removal of the statues to the school’s board of directors, according to the Marin Independent Journal.  

“Articulating an inclusive foundation appears to mean letting go of San Domenico’s 167-year tradition as a Dominican Catholic school and being both afraid and ashamed to celebrate one’s heritage and beliefs,” she said.

Cheryl Newell, who had four children graduate from the school, echoed concerns that attempts to be inclusive were actually erasing the school’s identity.

“They’re trying to be something for everyone and they’re making no one happy,” she told the Marin Independent Journal.

San Domenico was the first Catholic school in the state of California, founded by the Dominican Sisters of San Rafael in 1850. It now operates as an Independent Catholic school, meaning that most day-to-day decisions and operations are decided by the school’s board and administration, not by a parish or a religious order. The Dominican sisters maintain sponsorship of the school, as well as the approval of certain decisions like board members or the budget.

The school is within the boundaries of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, but runs largely independently of the archdiocese, archdiocesan spokesman Michael Brown told CNA. The canonical responsibility for the school falls to the Sisters.

Brown added that the archdiocese would have further clarifying conversations with school officials about the removal of the statues.

“We are going to be in contact with the school, just to clarify what the situation is, but it isn’t in any sort of crisis mode,” he said. “There’s just been a lot of publicity and public concern, so we’ll be having private conversations with the school hierarchy.”

School officials have maintained that the removal of the statues was in compliance with a plan that was approved unanimously by the school board, and that it was part of an attempt to be more welcoming to the growing number of non-Catholic students at the school.

“Over San Domenico’s 167-year history as California’s oldest independent and Catholic school, we have adjusted the number of statues on campus many times, and our recent effort is part of that continuum; the recent political climate and conversation have served to distort our intentions,” Kimberly Pinkson, Director of Marketing and Communications for the school, told CNA.

Pinkson added that previous numbers and photos shared by the media were misleading.

“For the record, there were 16 statues on campus prior to the school year and today there are 10 statues on campus,” she said.

She added that another photo of a statue that had been published had actually been in storage since 1965.

“In addition...at the start of this school year we moved our statue of St. Dominic to a more prominent place at the center of our school and put up a plaque honoring St. Dominic as our School’s patron saint. The plaque was placed the first week of school, prior to this news cycle. There has been and there is no plan to move any other statues,” she added.

Fitzgerald said she was concerned that the removal of the statues was only the latest in an overall backing away from the school’s Catholic identity, including “the word ‘Catholic’ has been removed from the mission statement, sacraments were removed from the curriculum, the lower school curriculum was changed to world religions, the logo and colors were changed to be ‘less Catholic,’ and the uniform was changed to be less Catholic,” she said.

Cecily Stock, Head of School, told the Marin Independent Journal that the removal of sacraments from the curriculum was on account of a lack of interest from families, not an attempt to erase the school’s Catholic identity.

“Over the last few years we’ve had fewer Catholic students as part of the community and a larger number of students of various faith traditions. Right now about 80 percent of our families do not identify as Catholic.”

Kate Martin, Director of Communications for the Dominican Sisters of San Rafael, told CNA that the publicity surrounding the removal of the statues has sparked a “good but hard” conversation about how to be welcoming of everyone while maintaining a Catholic identity.

She said the question can be especially difficult in a place as religiously and ethnically diverse as California, where Christian and Catholic values are not common.

“The Dominican values are still being taught (at the school) every minute, but there are lots of other families that have been coming to the school. How do we reach out and embrace everybody who wants this Dominican education?...how do we continue Catholic education and have lots of different families of different backgrounds?” she said.

Martin added that she did not believe the school “intended for this kind of upset” and that the sisters would be looking into the situation more deeply in the coming days, including exactly how many statues were removed or remained, and what will happen to the statues that will no longer be displayed.

Tags: Catholic Identity, Saints, Catholic Schools, Catholic News

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