Columbus Catholic President responds to petition to change school name
David J. Eaton, President
Columbus Catholic Schools
Like all histories, the history of Columbus Catholic Schools is long and somewhat complicated.
The history of the name Columbus Catholic Schools doesn’t start in Marshfield at all. It starts in New Haven, Connecticut. There, in 1882, Father Michael McGivney started an organization for Catholic men. At the time, there was a great deal of prejudice against Catholic immigrants. Those immigrants often found work only in the most dangerous factories. It was not uncommon, then, for Catholic families to be left fatherless and facing social and economic discrimination.
Fr. McGivney founded the Knights of Columbus as a fraternal organization – one in which Catholic men could support each other; a charitable organization – one that could aide the works of the Church; and an insurance provider to the widows and children of deceased members.
Fr. McGivney, an Irish priest in a predominantly Irish parish, decided to name his new fraternal organization after Christopher Columbus, rather than after a Catholic saint for a variety of reasons. First, one the primary prejudices against Catholic immigrants in the United States at the time was that they were only loyal to the Pope and could not, therefore, be loyal to the United States. Fr. McGivney wanted the Knights to be clearly tied to America. Second, by choosing a secular, historical figure recognized by Americans, Fr. McGivney hoped to deflect some of the prejudice against his newly-formed group. Finally, a surge of Italian immigration began in 1880, and with them came another surge of prejudice against Catholics. This led an Irish priest to choose an Italian after whom to name his Knights.
The Knights of Columbus remain a Catholic, fraternal, charitable, insurance group today, with about 1.7 million members in 14,000 Councils throughout the world. The cause for Fr. McGivney’s canonization is being advanced, and just recently a miraculous healing through his intercession was recognized by the Vatican.
In 1882, the first Catholic church in Marshfield, St. John the Baptist, was completed, and in 1888 the first Catholic school was constructed next to it. In 1915, Knights of Columbus Council 1799 was formed in Marshfield. This later became the John Eisen Council, named after the fourth pastor of St. John’s who oversaw the construction of a much larger church, which is the one in use today.
In 1950, Bishop John Treacy approved the construction of a Catholic high school to serve the parishes of Marshfield. At the time, Our Lady of Peace school was a year old. During this post-war period, Catholic schools were full and a new high school that could serve all three Catholic schools was needed.
Which brings us back to the Knights of Columbus. The KCs played a role in funding the construction of the new school. While each parish, and private donors, also made significant contributions to Columbus High School, the support of the Knights of Columbus was critical.
Like Fr. McGivney’s decision, it seems that a name that was secular, suggestive of commitment to country, but at the same time connected to a strong Catholic organization was chosen for the new school.
The original mascot of the school was not the “Don,” it was “The Crows.” The school had not been open long when the sisters teaching in the school at the time polled the students, and selected the “Don” as the mascot. A “Don” is a Spanish or Italian noble. The mascot, therefore, is quite literally a “Knight of Columbus.”
In the 1950s the personal history of Christopher Columbus was little known. Those who chose the name likely did so more to honor the help and legacy of the Knights of Columbus than to honor Columbus the man. Like Father McGivney they hoped to provide a place for Catholics to escape from the prejudices they faced in secular society even at that time.
Is Christopher Columbus a good role model for us today? No. Was he chosen to evoke prejudice, hatred, and evil? Of course not. The name was chosen for the same reasons Fr. McGivney chose it in 1882 and to honor those Knights who helped build our school.
The cost of rebranding
Some have mentioned that the cost of rebranding our schools could be significant, and this is certainly true. Everything, large and small, bearing the name or logo would have to be replaced. Business cards don’t cost much, but totally stripping and refinishing a new gym floor would. Replacing scoreboards, records, banners, and signage on three buildings would as well. More significantly, we would lose decades worth of name recognition at a time when Columbus Catholic Schools is a well-known option and enrollment is steadily growing. Having to rebuild our online community may not cost much financially, but there would be a substantial opportunity cost.
The cost of the conversation
Despite reports to the contrary, the creators of the petition have not come to speak to any member of our administrative team, our dean, or any of our pastors. While we would welcome a conversation, that, alone, bears a hidden cost. In this time of COVID-19, we need to focus all of our energy on determining how to safely reopen our schools in the fall. We want to have children back in our classrooms but we must prepare those classrooms, and all other areas of our school, to teach our students safely in all areas. That means working on procedures for social distancing, hygiene, regular sanitization, movement throughout the buildings, safe lunch rooms, and how to respond to sick children who have, or have not, tested positive. We need to spend time training our teachers to more-effectively instruct even young children in a virtual setting if we are forced to return to that due to a second wave of COVID19.
Why keep the name?
For nearly 70 years, people have been graduating from Columbus Catholic High School. We keep the name to honor their legacy and their memories of their time here. Any other name would take from them something that is important to their past, and in many cases, important to them right now.
Sixty-eight years of graduates have been taught to do well while doing good. They’ve been taught service to others, social responsibility, and civic duty. Decades of teachers, staff, parents, volunteers, and donors have sacrificed time, talent, and money to see that Columbus High School, and now Columbus Catholic Schools, succeeds.
This isn’t a statue standing alone in the middle of a square somewhere. For many of our alumni and staff, Columbus – the school – is a lived experience. Changing the name takes from them part of their own, personal history. We have kept the name throughout the years to honor the Knights and to honor those who have spent their lives supporting the school they love.