Religious Education and Fenwick High School: New Directions in the 1960s

By Fr. Thomas F. O’Meara, O.P.

The number and size of Catholic grade schools and high schools increased greatly in the 1950s. After 1960, the educational preparation of teachers, new issues for church life amid movements like ecumenism, racial justice in American society, and a general advancement in the quality of Catholic schools led to new considerations of the area of “religion,” of “theology,” in secondary education.

The Dominican shield of Fenwick High School.

At Fenwick High School, conducted by the Dominican Friars in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, two movements emerged to expand and vitalize theological education in high school. One had to do with educational materials like textbooks; the other had to do with new approaches to religious education, with ideas for and beyond the classroom.

New Theology and New Textbooks

The developments in secondary education began with similar movements in Catholic colleges and universities. The simple and sparse catechetical format of the texts for required courses in religion in Catholic colleges and universities was more and more criticized in the 1950s. The shallow level of content often did not rise above basic catechetical propositions about Christianity to which was added some Aristotelian philosophy in ethics and theodicy. Some have gone so far as to say that prior to 1960 there was no theology being taught in most Catholic institutions of higher education in America other than seminaries. Certainly few courses touched on, for instance, the content of the New Testament or the theology of the sacraments and liturgy.

In those years teachers began to meet to discuss how teaching theology in college was more than teaching scholastic philosophy or catechesis. In 1954, they founded the Society of Catholic College Teachers of Sacred Doctrine (this became in 1965 the College Theology Society).1 At the first national meeting of the SCCTSD in 1954 (there had been regional meetings) three of the founders offered their approaches. Gerard Sloyan of Catholic University of America spoke on “From Christ in the Gospels to Christ in the Church;” Thomas Donlan, O.P., of St. Rose Priory, Dubuque, Iowa, presented “An Approach from the Dominican School of Thought;” John Fernan, S.J., of Le Moyne College, Syracuse, New York, described a “historical, Scriptural approach.” These pioneers of the college theology movement had three different views of theological education: Sloyan’s was biblical; Donlan’s was neo-Thomist; Fernan’s was historical and biblical. All three were working on producing textbooks.

ND’s Father Hesburgh

Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C., in 1945 returned to the University of Notre Dame to begin his time of teaching theology there before he became president of that institution. He had written his doctoral dissertation at The Catholic University of America on the theology of lay people and the sacraments.2 Teaching undergraduate theology soon led to his conceiving of and editing textbooks, a series called “University Religion Series. Texts in Theology for the Layman.”3

Thomas Donlan, O.P., a native of Oak Park, Illinois, taught at Fenwick High School from 1946 to 1952. He went from there to teach at the Dominican seminaries in Dubuque, Iowa. While there he directed original publications in college and high school theological education. First he supervised a volume of essays exploring how sacred doctrine of a largely Thomist bent could and should be the framework for courses outside the seminary. Essays treated the arts, sociology, and the natural sciences, philosophy, and religion: This was an attempt to draw theology out of the isolation of clerical circles into a wider cultural world.4

Fenwick’s Fr. Donlan, O.P. hailed
from Oak Park.

Donlan and other Dominicans, some teaching at the first graduate program in theology to accept religious or laity at St. Mary’s College, South Bend, Indiana, decided to produce a series of textbooks for college. First books began to appear in 1952.5 They did offer a theology deeper than a catechism, but curiously it did not hold a particularly Thomistic order and principles and retained the order of apologetic manuals from 1860 to 1960. A second series of texts appearing in 1959 was a greatly improved enterprise. They held sections of Aquinas’ Summa theologiae, and included material from Scripture and practical moral theology.6

In 1960, the Dominicans set about writing a second set of textbooks: for high school.7 These considered contemporary questions and sought to include biblical material. Topics were arranged around the Catholic Church’s nature and presence, the sacraments, and psychological growth through grace. Their pedagogy looked outside the classroom for other themes.

Those books in their thought-forms and answers were still somewhat neo-scholastic, but they held more Christian content. Soon the Dominicans claimed that the series was being used in over a hundred schools. In 1968, the series was revised.8 The books sought to have a contemporary vitality as the authors drew together the Scriptures and the lives of young people.

An Institute for Exploring Religious Education

Fr. Mainelli, O.P.

The Central Province of Dominicans was ordaining a number of people and were sending some of them on for further study, further study not just at the University of St. Thomas Aquinas (The Angelicum) in Rome but at American and European universities. Some of those young Dominicans were sent first to teach on the faculty of Fenwick High School. The head of the Theology Department was Vincent Mainelli, O.P. (at Fenwick, 1965-1969). He and a few others came up with ideas to expand, improve, and vitalize religion classes. They started an Institute at Fenwick devoted to that enterprise. From the Fenwick faculty came two first members: Patrick Chrysostom Rooney, O.P. (at Fenwick, 1966-1967) and Donald Celestine Weisser, O.P. (at Fenwick, 1967-1969). They explored relating the teaching of Jesus and Christianity to social issues.

Fr. Rooney, O.P.

They also had the idea that the students would take their study of theology out of the classroom; perhaps they would meet church ministers involved with poverty in the city or learn about marriage through the movements of Marriage Encounter. These young Dominicans established contacts with a few other Catholic high schools who sought to do something similar. A further area of expanding theology was in the area of the visual. Anthony Schillacci, O.P., had become well known for drawing out the religious themes in avant-garde movies of the times: for instance, those by the Swedish Ingmar Bergman or the Italian Federico Fellini. The Dominicans also developed as an exercise for the students the creation of art and sound shows of slides and music illustrating religious passages.

Fr. Weisser, O.P.

Within a year Weisser was sent to Europe, to Paris and the Institut Catholique for doctoral studies. He had helped edit a collection of essays by Catholics on the noted Protestant theologian Paul Tillich; this pioneering book in American ecumenism secured a response by Tillich himself (then teaching at the University of Chicago).9 At the same time, Rooney was hired by the University of Notre Dame to be a teacher in its new Department of Religious Education (alongside its Department of Theology). Donlan acquired a prestigious Fulbright Fellowship. This supported him for a year’s research in Europe. The topic which he had proposed was religious education in French secondary education. His concluding report to the Fulbright Committee was widely read.

In the years after the high school texts of Priory Press first appeared, the milieu of Catholic education expanded enormously. There was the influence of the first center for religious education in the world, Lumen Vitae in Bruxelles, Belgium where Americans, like Bede Jagoe, O.P., of the Central Province and Nigeria studied in 1965.10 Soon universities like The Catholic University in Washington, D. C., The University of Notre Dame, and Boston College had their own programs — and then departments – of religious education. This field, not always easily distinguishable from theology, worked to join Christian topics to modern educational approaches and pedagogy. And too Priory Press found itself amid new publishers producing their own series of textbooks for the large Catholic market.

The Institute for Religious Education at Fenwick did not last. These are the years of Vatican II and immediately afterwards when American Catholicism becomes aware of new theologians, new theological ideas, and new opportunities. Catholic publishing houses (often branches of large European ones), multiplied. After Catholic universities started their own programs and institutes for religious education there were many sisters and priests who were specialists in this area, and dioceses had offices just for religious education. The Dominicans at Fenwick were themselves drawn out into this wider world, while the Province sent younger theologians to its graduate school located in a cluster of Protestant and Catholic schools.

Fr. O’Meara

About the Author

Thomas O’Meara after doctoral studies in Germany returned in 1966 to teach at Aquinas Institute (Dubuque, Iowa), and then after 1980 at the University of Notre Dame (South Bend, Indiana). His books include Thomas Aquinas Theologian and Theology of Ministry.

1 See Sandra Mize, Joining the Revolution in Theology. The College Theology Society, 1954-2004 (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007).

2 Theodore Hesburgh, Theology of Catholic Action (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1946).

3 Hesburgh, ed., God and the World of Man (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1956 [1954]).

4 Reginald Masterson, ed., Theology in the Catholic College (Dubuque, IA: The Priory Press, 1961).

5 James W. Regan, John A. Henry, Thomas C. Donlan, A Primer of Theology 1 (Dubuque, IA; The Priory Press, 1952).

6 College Texts in Theology. For instance, volume two: Francis L.B. Cunningham, ed., The Christian Life (Dubuque, IA: The Priory Press, 1959).

7 Frank Kelly, ed., Your Vocation from God (Dubuque,, IA: The Priory Press, 1960).

8 For instance, Reginald Doherty, Your Life in Christ (Dubuque: The Priory Press, 1968). The series was called The Challenge of Christ and was jointly published with the international publishing house of McGraw-Hill.

9 Thomas O’Meara, Donald Weisser, editors, Paul Tillich in Catholic Thought (Dubuque, IA: Priory Press, 1964).

10 See Bede Jagoe, ”Vatican II Comes to Africa,” Worship 79 (2005): 544-554.

3 Replies to “Religious Education and Fenwick High School: New Directions in the 1960s”

  1. A splendid re-cap of the history of Religious Education for a Fenwick grad ’60 & former Dominican. O’Meara once again has pulled together much rich history for us to savor & give thanks for the Dominicans he mentioned. Thanks Tom

  2. Thanks Tom for writing this history, one that I lived through and remember well. I knew all the men you mention. One you missed is Jimmy Regan, my senior religion teacher at Fenwick. I recall being captivated by what we were studying. Fenwick seniors were given a trial run on the material being written for the College Theology texts Priory Press was about to publish. At the time it was a departure from the ordinary, and its approach foreshadowed Vatican II by years. Imagine my shock when I entered the Order and found myself in our weekly classes for “Lay-Brothers studying the Baltimore Catechism!

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