On the first day of the new school year, the kids at San Domenico’s School in San Anselmo, California, probably noticed a change in their campus. Half a dozen statues of saints are gone. That still leaves ten in place, including the statue of the school’s patron, St. Dominic (San Domenico is Italian for St. Dominic). And by the way, the displaced six is a far cry from the 160 statues and sacred images that WND reported were hauled off to oblivion by school administrators.
Now, as an old-fashioned Catholic guy, I’m of the opinion that more sacred art in Catholic churches and schools, the better. But the San Domenico case calls for a little perspective.
First off, San Domenico’s administrators and trustees are proud that it is the first Catholic school opened in California. It was founded in 1850 by Dominican nuns. So it was undoubtedly, from the get-go, a Catholic school, and it remained so for many decades. In the 1960s, the Dominican sisters who taught at San Domenico saw an exodus of nuns from their convent and a sharp drop in the number of young women entering to become nuns. With their personnel resources shrinking, little by little the Dominicans withdrew from the school and it fell to laypeople to take over if San Domenico was to continue. The sisters still have a presence on the Board of Trustees — at last count, of the 25 or so board members, three are Dominicans, which does not make them much of a voting bloc at board meetings to revise school policy and procedures.
While the San Domenico website cites with pride its Catholic origins — it even mentions God! — the term that is repeated often is “independent.” It appears that the point the school wants to make is that it is non-sectarian and certainly not under the supervision of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, which has authority over Catholic schools in its jurisdiction. It is unclear if the Board of Trustees has formally severed the school’s ties to the Catholic Church.
Given the current demographics of San Domenico, its portrayal of itself as non-sectarian and independent is not surprising. School officials estimate that about 80 percent of the student body is comprised of children and teenagers who come from families that profess a different faith than Catholicism, or perhaps no faith at all.
That means the Catholic kid population at San Domenico is down to about 20 percent. I wouldn’t be surprised if the trustees and the administration would rather not alienate the niche market (however small) of Catholic parents, but by now the Catholic parents should have realized that San Domenico is not overflowing with Catholic fervor.
Recently, the classes in Catholic doctrine were dropped from the curriculum. Furthermore, students who were preparing for the three of the most essential events of Catholic life — First Confession, First Holy Communion, and Confirmation — would not receive any instruction regarding these sacraments from the San Domenico faculty. The curriculum in the grammar school is devoted to comparative religions, while in high school students have a variety of electives from which to choose, ranging from a history of Christianity to the teachings and spiritual practice of Zen Buddhism. All of these are perfectly fine courses and suitable subjects of study for intellectually curious young minds, but if a “Catholic” is not teaching its seven-year-olds the doctrine of the Eucharist before the kids make their First Communion, then it’s not a Catholic school any longer.
To get back to the missing statues, since non-Catholic parents are now San Domenico’s target audience, the trustees and administrators felt that the Catholic statuary might be too intimidating for non-Catholic parents who were considering enrolling their children at the school. So, to tone down the Catholic thing, they removed some of the sacred art.
I see their point. But it is just another tiresome manifestation of the egotistical notion that says, “This does not apply to me, therefore I am offended and it must go.” I wonder if any of these school-shopping parents ever said such a thing while touring the San Domenico campus.
And here’s another thing I wonder about: during the days of the British Empire, did Muslim, and Hindu, and Sikh, and animist parents have second thoughts about shipping off the kid to Oxford or Cambridge because those university towns were filled with Christian chapels? With statues! And even (shudder) stained glass! My guess is not.
The Catholic statuary does send a message — that San Domenico was once a Catholic school. These works of art are part of the school’s 167-year-long heritage.
Maybe this is a solution: keep the old statues up to show where San Domenico came from. Put up new statues that reflect where San Domenico stands now and where it would like to go as the school moves into its next 167 years. For example, plant a Peace Garden with a statue of Gandhi at one end and the old statue of St. Francis of Assisi at the other end. There, problem solved. Was that so hard?
Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of This Saint Will Change Your Life.