Does Free Speech Have a Prayer in Catholic Grade Schools?

By | 2019-03-23T17:06:13-07:00 March 23rd, 2019|
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ST. LOUIS—In the desolation of this weary old city, St. Margaret of Scotland Catholic Church and School appeared as an oasis.

The parish stands in the middle of one of the few recovering inner-city neighborhoods in St. Louis. Four years ago, it became the first St. Louis inner-city Catholic school in more than 50 years to construct a new building. The mayor and the archbishop presided at the dedication of the new edifice, a middle school building complete with a high-school quality science lab and other high-tech accoutrements.

After an absence of 42 years, I had just returned to my native town with my wife and our 10-year-old daughter. We bought a house three short blocks from the school. We were euphoric about our community.

The oasis, sadly, proved to be a mirage. Urban St. Louis is completely controlled by the Democratic Party. With no Republican Party to speak of, all elected officials are chosen in Democratic primaries, where often the most extreme leftists prevail. The regime’s excesses of policing ideological conformity reach down even into a Catholic parish and grade school.

Our pastor’s smooth pulpit performances seem to have been scrubbed by the Party politburo. Far from proclamations of the full Gospel, they are NPR-style commentaries blending all of the trending liberal political talking points of the week with some snippets of the teaching of Jesus carefully selected to give the party line the odor of sanctity.

I deluded myself into thinking that a “Catholic school” was actually a Catholic school. My wife, who frequented the place while I did not, kept warning me that the atmosphere was heavy with political correctness and trendy left-wing feminism.

I was too caught up in feel-good nostalgia seeing my daughter, 50 years younger than me, walking to and from school on streetscapes that resembled my old childhood haunts.

I was not attentive to my wife and daughter’s complaints about two abusive teachers, one an elderly woman who hurled verbal abuse at the kids, the other a woman who hurled chairs at the children and stashed a bottle of whiskey in her desk.

Instead, I focused on how much I admired the only pillar of sanity and the staunchest Catholic on the faculty, Dennis Unverferth, the history and social studies teacher in the middle school. In Catholic grade school environments it is rare to find a male teacher who is not effeminate. But Unverferth is a man’s man, a good husband and father (one of his daughters teaches French at the school), a role model beloved by students and parents alike.

He is also a conservative. He wasn’t overbearing about it, and both liberal and conservative families loved the honesty and good humor of his teaching style and substance.

I was so busy basking in our good fortune to have this great teacher that I failed to note that the principal and the other teachers hated him and were out to get him.

He taught at St. Margaret’s for 10 years, but last week they got him. His offense had been to try to stimulate thought and discussion by showing middle schoolers a four-minute video produced by Dennis Prager, “Why You Can’t Argue with a Leftist.”

Proving the point, the leftist-feminist school principal, Juliann Hesed, sent him home and suspended him from work. She lied to my daughter and her classmates by saying he was out sick. The children knew the truth, however.

Rumors and anxiety abounded for several days before Hesed sent parents an email stating that Unverferth had been found guilty of a serious crime against leftist thought control: showing “a politically/racially inappropriate video . . . that undermines our work as a Catholic school dedicated to principles of social justice.” He was suspended until further notice.

Three days later, Hesed sent another email saying Unverferth would not be returning to the school and that she—manifestly unfit though she is to teach it—would be taking over his class.

Unverferth had been teaching our daughter American history—real history, not ideological nonsense about intersectionality or whatever is the latest feminist fad. What could our self-referential feminist principal possibly teach other than “herstory”?

The email told parents, “As this is a personnel issue, no more can be said.” The message was from her email address, but she added the name of the church pastor, Father Matthew O’Toole, to the signature block.

The next night was a regular school board meeting. This unmasked Father O’Toole. While parents and other school board members demanded over and over to get an explanation, O’Toole and Hesed refused to say a thing about the Unverferth matter. His silence made it clear that he is the real power enforcing the left-wing ideological conformity.

Hesed did tell the school board she will ask the archdiocesan social services office to send counselors to fix our traumatized children. She actually believes it is not she and her allies, but Unverferth and the people who defend him, who caused the trauma. Donors to the archdiocese should send her and Father O’Toole an invoice for the damage they have done to our kids.

Meanwhile, the woman who bullies and throws chairs at children is still “teaching” our daughter.

When I heard about the stonewalling at the school board meeting, I contacted the archbishop and urged him to intervene by suspending the pastor and principal and putting someone impartial and unconnected to their conduct in charge of healing the wounds at the parish. I shared this strong recommendation with school parents.

Parents who say they are liberals and not Catholics have rallied to Unverferth’s defense. The mother of the newest boy in the eighth grade—he is a Muslim and an immigrant—says that she and her son are heartbroken and that Unverferth did nothing racist, nothing wrong at all.

A Muslim immigrant family defends the conservative teacher while the self-described Catholic pastor and principal humiliate him and destroy his career.

The empire struck back with a startling note circulated throughout the school community by Jennifer Kavanaugh, a left-wing feminist drama teacher in the lower school. In a cold and truly despicable statement, she denounced Unverferth for his non-leftist politics and proclaimed that she is superbly qualified to teach middle school social studies instead of him. The school moms say that Kavanaugh, a favorite of Hesed’s, is campaigning to become the next principal.

Kavanaugh and Hesed lately have been doing a sort of victory dance of self-congratulation. They harangue us that this has been St. Margaret’s year of the triumph of “inclusivity.”

Their self-righteous, leftist “inclusivity” has driven the best, most faithful Catholic teacher from the faculty. It has driven my family—and I don’t know how many others—out of a parish we used to call home.

On Friday, a group of school parents informed me they had mobilized numerous parents to declare they were withholding financial support from the parish, especially from its just-launched capital campaign, unless there is full transparency and a just resolution of the Unverferth case. My wife and I have joined the financial boycott. Thanks be to God, it is mushrooming.

St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson is soft-spoken. Unlike his predecessor, Cardinal Raymond Burke, he stays out of the headlines. One of the most admirable things about Carlson is that he frequently joins ordinary lay people praying the rosary outside the Planned Parenthood abortion clinic just a few blocks from St. Margaret’s.

I hope he will pray for our parish. He should pray for the lead tenor in our church choir. This man, State Representative Peter Merideth, has a beautiful voice, but his hands are stained with the blood and dirty money of the abortion industry. Merideth is one of Planned Parenthood’s top supporters in the legislature and a big beneficiary of Planned Parenthood’s cash.

The archbishop also should take action to repair the damage at our parish.

We need a pastor who is not a politician. We need a school principal who is a genuine educator, not a leftist-feminist agitator.

We lay people as citizens should clamor for our government to protect our free speech and civil rights from left-wing tyranny not only on the college campuses but also in little Catholic grade schools.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

About the Author:

Joseph Duggan
Joseph Duggan, a former White House speechwriter for President George H. W. Bush and a former Reagan State Department appointee, is an international business and public affairs consultant. He recently moved home to his native city of St. Louis.