Building a Parochial School in Clarksville

Reverend William Howard Bishop: Toward an Understanding of His Charism as Founder of the Glenmary Home Missioners

By Father Dan Dorsey
(Numbered notes, indicated in parenthesis, are listed at the end of this Web page.)

II. The Life of Father Bishop, 1915-1939 (con’t)

1917-1923: Building a Parochial School in Clarksville
“A day I shall never forget” was Father Bishop’s observation on his first day in his “new charge.”(24) The day marked the beginning of a twenty year period where Clarksville would be his home and St. Louis Church his pastorship.

It would take time to heal and overcome the memories of the previous two years. Father Bishop arrived in Clarksville that 15th day of September a man who had been deeply hurt and who still suffered from a lack of self-confidence.(25) Shyness continued to plague him.(26) He yearned for the comradery and friendship of his fellow priests but often felt awkward and out of place in their company.(27) Many times he was suspicious and distrustful of them.(28) The rural environment of his new parish, however, proved to be conducive to this much needed healing.

Most of Father Bishop’s energy in his first few months in Clarkesville was directed to correcting the “dreadful state of disorder” that he had found in the parish when he arrived. Both the rectory and the church were given a thorough cleaning.(29) He began a church census.(30) Because his church collections were averaging only $6.00 a week, he introduced the envelope system of giving.(31) A heating plant was installed in the church.(32) Father Bishop’s response to the state of the parish was feverish activity and perhaps a diary entry from January 3, 1918 can provide us with an insight into the ‘why’ of this activity:

I realize that it is largely through success in my work that I shall obtain peace of mind here and salvation hereafter. I know that success in my own work depends upon the quantity and quality of service I render. Therefore, I am daily giving better service than I ever did before. I am ambitious to excel in everything that I undertake; to do better work than is expected of me. I am therefore earnestly and enthusiastically at work establishing standards, keeping records of my progress. I am planning my work more and more intelligently and carefully. I am intensely interested in preparing schedules for all of my time, materials and equipment. I am striving everyday to dispatch all that I do with a higher percentage of efficiency than ever before. I am always on the alert to standardize conditions and to standardize my operations. I am thus playing the game against my past performances in finding and taking the best, easiest and quickest way to the desirable things of life.(33)

The tenor of these reflections is that of a man who is still trying to prove to himself (“I shall obtain peace of mind”) and to others that he can be a competent parish priest. Father Bishop’s feverish activity is not only a reaction to the failure that he had encountered at the Shrine, but also a reaction to a perception that had plagued him before his ordination to the priesthood-that he was lazy and used his time inefficiently.

More importantly, however, this diary entry provides a key to understanding Father Bishop’s faith-vision and spirituality. He believes that he will make his way to God, that he will “gain” his salvation, and that he will personally be fulfilled by being a skilled and dutiful laborer in the vineyard. “Quantity and quality of service” will be the standard by which Father Bishop measures his life. This could help to explain why he did not reflect on his interior life in his diary. The emphasis is always on being the skilled and dutiful laborer. Accordingly his days are long and full of activity. He is a demanding person who expects much of himself and of others. Once a goal has been established he is tenacious in its achievement.

The two spiritual practices that Father Bishop does record in his diary are mass and the breviary.(34) He sporadically mentions making an hour of adoration.(35) Occasionally he notes spending time in the study of scripture,(36) and he dutifully made his yearly retreat along with the other priests of the archdiocese.(37) But the overwhelming emphasis and focus of his life is on his work to the extent that his interior life does not seem to be as developed as it potentially could have been. One consequence of this point is especially significant for the purpose of this study: the activity of the Holy Spirit is more pronounced and evident in the events of Father Bishop’s life than it is in his interior life. In other words, the Holy Spirit seems to lead, guide, and “speak” to Father Bishop primarily in his active life, his “work.”

A memoranda in his diary at the close of 1918 provides us with an insight into the direction Father Bishop’s active life will take. In the memoranda he listed four items under the heading “Things I aim to accomplish sooner or later.” Each of the four items represents an important value for Father Bishop. They are values that transcend the immediate, stated goal of the diary entry. Each in its own way is a strong force in his life.(38)

The first “thing” Father Bishop “aimed to accomplish” was to have a flagpole erected on the church property and have a “public flag raising.” He was a patriotic man who deeply loved and believed in the United States. He often preached on “Catholic Citizenship” and the relationship between Church and state. Like many of his Catholic contemporaries he sought to convince those who were not Catholic that love of country and adherence to the Catholic faith were not mutually exclusive.(30)

The fourth goal that Father Bishop listed was to “start a parish newspaper that would be issued monthly and which would go to every family, so that nobody would be without news of the church.” Some men inspire others by spoken word, others by their extraordinary and heroic example, and others by the printed word. From an early age Father Bishop had recognized the power of the printed word: it could educate, disseminate information, and call the reader to action.(40) Over the years the printed word would be Father Bishop’s most effective weapon for promoting the numerous organizations and causes with which he was involved.

Father Bishop’s second and third goals are interrelated and dominated his attention during the years that immediately followed: he hoped to establish a parish school and to organize catechism classes. Throughout his life education had always been an important value for Father Bishop and it is without a doubt the prevailing theme during this period of his life. It is doubly important for us because it is in his interest in education that we can discern and witness the beginnings of his sense and understanding of the missionary dimension of the Church and how all the members of the Church are called to participate in that missionary activity.

Since the time of the First Provincial Council of Baltimore in 1829 Catholic schools had been seen as a vital instrument for teaching Catholic principles of faith and morality. Catholic schools were also viewed as a means to prevent “leakage” from the ranks of the Church. Rural areas, like Clarkesville, had been particularly susceptible to “leakage” due to the fact that the lacked man of the resources of the urban centers.(41)

In a manner that would become typical of Father Bishop’s approach to problems, he attached the question of education with intensity and tenacity. Building a Catholic school was his preferred solution to the problems, but since it was initially unfeasible from a financial perspective, he focused his immediate attention on the organization of catechism classes. Week after week the church bulletin dwelled on this concern:

The children are not attending catechism classes. . .parents have the responsibility of getting their children to catechism classes. . . children are not being properly instructed.”(42)

Responsibility was to be shared by parents and children alike: “In afternoon went to Montrose to give catechism classes. Children had not studied and I bawled them out.”(43)

Building a parish school, however, was his overriding concern. Believing that he “must have a school,” Father Bishop first announced his intention in the church bulletin in 1920. From the time that “parochial school” first appeared in the bulletin, few weeks would pass when these two words were not to be found in one form or another in the weekly church communiqué. A quote in one such bulletin from a “city pastor” illustrates the importance that Father Bishop personally placed on the project: “If either school or church had to go, I would say take my church and leave my school.”(44)

One of the first fruits that this project would bear began to take shape on Thanksgiving Day in 1922, when the Catholic Daughters of America from Baltimore and Washington gathered in Clarkesville for a solemn high mass at St. Louis Church. A meeting followed and the League of St. Louis was formed. The purpose of the League was to build and maintain a parochial school in Clarkesville and eventually evolved under Father Bishop’s direction into the League of the Little Flower.(45)

The plans for the school and convent were ready in May of 1923, and later that month construction began. Less than five months later the school was completed and on September 30th the church bulletin proudly declared:

Our school opens tomorrow morning, October 1. Today we have the pleasure of greeting the sisters who are to conduct St. Louis School. A glad day for our little parish. Let us be grateful to God for such a great blessing.(46)

The accomplishment of this goal reveals several important personal characteristics of Father Bishop. The first, his tenacity, has already been mentioned. He labored for four years and overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles in order to build the school. Secondly, realizing he didn’t have the resources to accomplish such an undertaking within the parish, he focused his attention outward. In starting the League of St. Louis Father Bishop was able to elicit help and support from a variety of people throughout the Archdiocese of Baltimore. The third, and final, characteristic is related to the second: the “crusader” dimension of Father Bishop’s personality. In realizing that the opportunities for developing a strong, Catholic faith were inadequate when compared to the opportunities available in the city, Father Bishop not only sought immediate remedies to the situation, but also sought to educate those in the cities on the plight of rural areas.

1923-1935: The National Rural Life Conference

23) Diary, September 8, 1917.
24) Diary, September 15, 1917.
25) Diary, April 13, 1922.
26) Shyness seems to have been a problem of Father Bishop throughout his life. Cf. Diary, January 14, 1939.
27) Diary, September 13, 1916; December 13, 1917.
28) Diary, December 26, 1917.
29) Diary, September 15, 1917.
30) Diary, November 4, 1917.
31) Diary, March 10, 1918.
32) Interview with Mr. Hewitt Nichols, code 061, p. 1.
33) Diary, January 3, 1918.
34) November 4, 1917. Father Bishop must have impressed others with his holiness. A good example is a comment made by one of the Sister who taught at St. Louis School: “He made his meditation in church before Mass each day and made his thanksgiving after Mass each day. It was really very edifying. He was a real inspiration to us Sisters. He made us feel that the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass was such a meaningful act that it called for a fitting preparation and a grateful thanksgiving. This he showed in action as well as in his instruction.” (Interview with Sr. Marie Alama, no code number, p. 1).
35) “After breakfast I made an hour’s adoration in Church for the first time since I have been here.” Diary, April 9, 1918.
36) Diary, August 27, 1918; January 6, 1922.
37) Diary, September 13, 1916; September 9, 1918.
38) Diary, January 3, 1918.
39) Diary, April 15, 1917; June 3, 1917; November 9, 1919; November 12, 1919; February 3, 1922.
40) Interview with Colonel Harry Bishop, code 001, p. 2. Father Bishop was also editor of his high school newspaper and yearbook.
41) Cf. John Tracy Ellis, American Catholicism (Chicago : The University of Chicago Press, 1969):124-6. “Leakage” was a term used in the 19th and early 20th centuries to describe the great number of Catholics (most of whom were newly arrived immigrants) who were not practicing their faith.
42) Taken from a booklet entitled “Centenary Celebration of the Church of St. Louis King” which was published on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Church of St. Louis, Clarkesville, Maryland. This excerpt is taken from the section entitled “St. Louis School: The Genesis of Parish School.” There is a copy of this booklet in the Glenmary archives at Cincinnati, Ohio.
43) Diary, May 9, 1918.
44) Centenary booklet, op. cit.
45) Ibid.
46) Centenary booklets, op. cit.