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The Covington Altar Boys, Institutional Racism and the Doctrine of Discovery

The smirking Covington Altar Boys episode brings back memories of when I was attending a 99% white, elite, all boys Catholic High School. It was in 1963/65, the peak of Catholic culture in the US, with John Kennedy in the White House and Pope John XXIII in the Vatican. As a Freshman, I joined 264 other incoming 9th Graders at Sacred Heart Seminary, a ten-acre walled/fenced Gothic compound in Inner City Detroit, ostensibly there to train young men with “a vocation” for the priesthood. To say it was toxically hierarchical is an understatement (and, of course, it was toxically patriarchal).

It was a weekday residential school for me, since I was from Flint. Five of us from Flint were car-pooled back and forth over weekends by our parents. Over half of us students were residential, sleeping in cavernous open three story-tall halls on the top floor of the huge 15-acre Gothic compound. Many others came from the wealthy suburbs surrounding Detroit and went home for their nights. I went from a week of classes and Masses and many other chapel times to weekends of being an altar boy at Masses, sometimes three or four per weekend. I never got a day off from Mass.

We immediately were divided into six classes based solely on IQ tests they gave us…9A, 9B, 9C, 9D, 9E and 9F! Each class was successively larger as you went down the list. We spent most of our time in enforced silence. Older students were “”Prefects and Monitors” and gave out demerit slips for any talking during no talk periods, 3-hours a day of study halls and especially Grand Silence from 7PM until you sat down for breakfast, or other rules violations. We were awakened by a huge buzzer at 6am and were required to make our beds, shower, dress and be at morning prayers in the chapel by 6:20. All done in silence. You could not even give a meaningful glance to anyone w/o getting a demerit write-up!

And for breakfast, the entire place from high school thru college lined up, according to age. You had to stand in silence in the long hall outside the Refectory with your hand covering your assigned number painted on the wall, so a Prefect could just walk down the hall and easily determine who was missing – and the sole excuse for not being there was illness and being assigned to the Infirmary. Freshmen waited in line for well over half an hour, while the older fellas ate and talked! One did not even have a choice on where he sat and who he ate with, as the seating was assigned every quarter.

One would think that with such a top-down hierarchy that those of us on the bottom would all be equally maltreated. That was hardly the case. One would also think that all there had that elusive “vocation.” Again, not at all the case. Ultimately, but 14 of the original 264 graduated High School there and only four went on to the priesthood!

The rich kids from the suburbs were the chosen ones. Virtually any infraction by them was overlooked. They would even have their girlfriends(!) pick them up from school and often would hang out outside the gates in their Mustangs and Cameros drinking and smoking with the girls just to taunt the rest of us.

Woke Up and Smelled the Bigotry

One Spring, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Detroit for a huge rally. A couple of the more radical young priest/teachers signed about a dozen of us misfits out, so we could go and make signs for the rally/march and the next day we came out of the gates and joined with tens of thousands of marchers headed downtown for King’s rousing speech. As we walked thru Inner City Detroit, people were pouring out of their houses to join in. Us white boys were treated like heroes. (Only one other time was I outside the gates and that was to go to a convenience store on a mission to buy a priest some cigars!)

A day after the March, I got in a fistfight with one of the rich kids over my attending the March. He, of course, called me a “N-lover,” among a racist tirade. He already knew I had a lot of Black friends that I hung out with on my rare free times on weekends. He sucker-punched me and despite his having a bunch of idiots egging him on, a la Sandmann, I smacked him back hard. Immediately his buddies swarmed me and the one guy who came to my aid; and soon enough there were prefects and priests all over us.

I was accused as the aggressor and only I had to have my parents come and meet with the priest in charge of discipline! The baby Brett Kavanaughs suffered no consequences. They successfully conspired to get me black-balled from the basketball team which they dominated. They already had gotten the only other 9A student on the team to quit after they mercilessly harassed him – and he was 6’7” tall and someone any team would usually want, but he was a scholar/farm boy and not one of their ilk.

So, that was it for me. I never really got the “vocation.” I was the oldest boy in a generation of an Irish Catholic clan and grew up with the expectation as long as I could remember. My parents finally relented and I was allowed to return to Flint and spend my last two years of high school at St. Michael’s, where I had gone for Grade School and Junior High. St. Mike’s was a bit less white than Sacred Heart, but not by much. It was an ethnic Catholic working class parish.

St. Mike’s dominated my life as long as I could remember…until graduation. My final break with Catholicism came a year after graduation when I was sent to St. Mike’s to pick up my youngest sister from Kindergarten. As my pal Jimmy and I approached the school doors, a nun inside saw us, freaked out and locked the doors and disappeared! We had to go across the street to the Rectory and find a priest who knew me to let us in to retrieve Kate. It wasn’t just some irrational fear of teen boys. It was racism. Jimmy, one of my best friends since I was ten and a threat to no one, was Black.

Such experiences give me no surprise at stuff like Brett Kavanaugh and Covington. St. Mike’s was hardly an elite school. But, an undercurrent of racism there was also unmistakable. At least it was kept an undercurrent and not as blatant as at Covington and other elite Catholic schools. And, I know that Monsignor Sheridan, the St. Michael’s patriarch/pastor, would have had those Covington boys AND their parents on the carpet over their crap. Just the fact that they disrespected another spiritual leader would have really angered him. And while he was Anti-Abortion, of course, he would be apoplectic at that “It isn’t rape if you enjoy it” line one of the proto-Kavanaugh’s directed at passing girls.

I got a decent education through all this. In the Seminary, I had the same text books in 9th Grade that I had as a college Freshman! And I had some excellent teachers at St. Mike’s, as well. Just as enrollment collapsed at Sacred Heart, many other Catholic schools no longer exist, including St. Mike’s. Consolidation occurred as numbers dropped. And many more Black and other minority kids are now attending those schools that remain.

The Doctrine of Discovery

So, progress is happening, despite the immediate Convington PR white-wash. However, the one takeaway I think is missing in all this is that the Catholic Church still promotes the 1500s Doctrine of Discovery and this encounter with a Native Elder shines quite a light on that. The Doctrine states that any Christian explorer who comes across a land of “heathens,” can claim the land and force the “heathens” to convert at sword point. The Doctrine still is taught in Catholic Schools and still is used in US Courts to undermine Native Rights!

Just last year, the Doctrine of Discovery was applied to a Supreme Court case invalidating the sovereign rights of the Yakama Nation. A friend and ally JoDe Goudy, the Chairman of the Yakama Nation, was abominably stopped from entering the Court for the Hearing, because he was dressed in his traditional, spiritual regalia!A Longhouse guy, JoDe always governs from the Seventh Generation principle – how decisions impact seven generations down the road before consideration and implementation. And, JoDe is one of the best and most respected elected leaders out there – in Indian Country or anywhere.

For me, the best thing that could come out of this is certainly not Trump’s one-sided White House Berder Summit with the boys. It is also not just the increased attention to anti-Native racism and the lengths people will go to deny it. For me (and JoDe and likely his Water Protector pal Nate Philips), the best thing would be for Pope Francis, given this spotlight, to atone for the Church’s racism – current and past–and immediately Rescind the Doctrine of Discovery. Otherwise this is just another lost opportunity to deal with a most intransigent oppressive evil–that got us and is rarely addressed.

(PS: During the Detroit Insurrection of 1967, the statue of Jesus outside the walls of Sacred Heart Seminary gates was repainted Black. It remains that way.)

MICHAEL DONNELLY has been active in promoting Civil Rights since “White Flight” changed his northside Flint neighborhood from white to predominantly Black in the late 1950s and he made a lot of friends and became teammates with the new neighbors his age and gender. He has supported Native Rights ever since his friend and ally John Trudell and allies brought the issues out in the open with the Alcatraz Occupation.  He can be reached at pahtoo@ aol.com


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MICHAEL DONNELLY has been an environmental activist since before that first Earth Day. He was in the thick of the Pacific Northwest Ancient Forest Campaign; garnering some collective victories and lamenting numerous defeats. He can be reached at pahtoo@aol.com


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