School Sisters’ of Notre Dame (SSND)

School Sisters: Holy Child & Notre Dame

Our mom wanted us to go to Catholic schools, as she and her family members had in their generation. So when we moved to Pennsylvania, we attended the School of the Holy Child, just west of Philadelphia. The elementary school was under the regime of nuns of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus at Rosemont College, which was next door. To say that we were indoctrinated by the Catholic parochial school system would be an understatement. The “Heavy Hand of God” was ready with a rapped knuckle, which did not work well for me. I was a mediocre student, earning mostly yellow, pink and blue cachets for average and below-average work. The Principal publicly handed out the cachets during school-wide assemblies. With nowhere to hide, it was more a cause for shame than motivation. I sulked in my sandwich and privately envied the students, like my sisters, who earned the distinctive, top-honors white cachets.

In 1961, we moved to Baltimore, Maryland, and the three boys in the family of six kids were enrolled in the new parish school adjacent to The Cathedral of Mary Our Queen. [1] The Cathedral parish contracted with an order of nuns, the School Sisters of Notre Dame (SSND), for teachers, curriculum, and religious inculcation. All but a few of the teachers and administrators were Catholic nuns and novices. The SSND had it’s founding school, The College of Notre Dame of Maryland, about one mile down the street from the Cathedral and it’s high school for girls, a few miles north of the city.

Within two years at Cathedral School, I met my nemesis and greatest emotional downer of a gadfly on my short life — Sister Mary Dionyse, SSND.[2]

Sr. Dionyse – Liars, Cheaters and Thieves

During those years Sr. Dionyse said she honed her teaching skills “to bring out the truth under God” in all of her students. She wore the rosery around her small waist as a belt of divine protection. And she brought with her to Baltimore the idea that she had to be the chief classroom intimidator to remain in control of all misbehaving children. I do not recall a single lesson we learned that year, but I do recall being yelled at many times: “Stand up, when I call on you.” “You need glasses!” “Can’t you see or read?” and “Do that over again, and speak louder.” The words stung like buckshot, and I was one of the better behaved kids.

From what she had told us, Sr. Dionyse had worked during her formative years at St. Joseph’s Catholic School in Taneytown, Maryland. One day that fall, she told us a story that went something like this:

“I hate liars, cheaters and thieves! And I’ll tell you what I do to them.” None of the three dozen students in class that day knew what she was railing about or why. She said that she wanted to catch an unkempt Taneytown boy, and call him out as a thief. “Some items had gone missing in my classroom, so I set a trap. I put a shiny silver dollar on the edge of my desk and patiently waited all morning. As the students left the room for lunch, I saw that boy sneak up to my desk. He put his hand in his jacket pocket and slid it over the coin, pulling the dollar into his pants pocket. When I confronted him, he denied it, so I whipped him until he told the God’s honest truth. I can always tell a liar, a cheater and a thief, so remember that story, the next time you are tempted to do something, anything wrong.”

Sr. Dionyse continued to terrorize students that year with intimidation and corporal punishment. A pattern she kept up for years to come. And she had racist roots that crept into her lesson plans. She was one of the teachers who did not want Brown v. Board of Education to come to Maryland. “No darkies in this class.” She must have felt that she was doing God’s work, even though her casualties were many. Lots of my classmates had serious bouts of depression during that year of school. It took a long time to get over the bad educational habits and bigoted biases in order to enjoy any sense of self-worth and accomplishment.

What is there about Taneytown and Catholic nuns that got this story rolling? Time to start digging into the archives.

Taneytown, Named For Raphael Taney, ancestor of Roger B. Taney

Taney, Pronounced Tawney

There is a small, sleepy little town in Carroll County, Maryland, that is now in the US spotlight for it’s racist roots. It’s name is Taneytown. Living in a “Border State” like Maryland, while growing up, did not seem like a big deal. Now it is a big deal and this Witness Post points to some of the reasons why it came back on the collective country’s radar.

Roger Brooke Taney (1777 – 1864) was the fifth Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, holding the office from 1836 to 1864. Taney is best known for delivering the majority opinion in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), which ruled that African Americans could not be considered citizens and that Congress could not prohibit slavery in the territories of the US. Prior to rising to the high court, Taney served as the US Attorney General and US Secretary of State under President Andrew Jackson. He was also the first Catholic to serve on the Supreme Court. What irony: a Catholic and a racist.

Roger Taney was raised in a wealthy, slave-owning family in Calvert County, Maryland. His ancestor, Raphael Taney, was a land grant owner of 100 acres in Frederick County. Roger Taney won election to the Maryland House of Delegates as a Federalist. After the War of 1812, he broke with the Federalists and switched to the Democratic Party. He was elected to the Maryland Senate in 1816 and became a prominent attorney before he was appointed as Attorney General of Maryland (1827). He later supported Andrew Jackson’s presidential campaigns and briefly designated as US Secretary of State before he was rejected by the US Senate. In 1835, Jackson appointed Taney to succeed John Marshall as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, a position he held until his death.

Portrait of Dred Scott © Everett Collection/age fotostock

Dred Scott Decision

In 1846, Dred Scott, an enslaved African-American man, was living in the slave state of Missouri. He had filed suit against his master declaring his freedom. His wife, Harriet, also filed suit, but her claims were not given standing in the court. Scott’s lawyer, Francis Murdock, argued that Scott had legally gained freedom in the 1830’s, when he had resided with a previous master in both the free state of Illinois and a portion of the Louisiana Territory that banned slavery under the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Scott prevailed in a state trial court; however, that ruling was reversed by the Missouri Supreme Court. After a series of legal maneuvers, the Scott case finally made its way to the Supreme Court in 1856. Although the case concerned the explosive issue of slavery, it initially received relatively little attention from the press and from the justices themselves. Then Taney went to town:

Writing for the Supreme Court’s majority, Chief Justice Taney handed down the opinion in 1857. As his first point, Taney held that no African-American, free or enslaved, had ever enjoyed the rights of a citizen under the Constitution. He argued that, for more than a century leading up to the ratification of the Constitution, blacks had been “regarded as beings of an inferior order, altogether unfit to associate with the white race … and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” [3] To bolster the argument that blacks were widely regarded as legally inferior when the Constitution was adopted, Taney pointed to various state laws. At the same time he ignored the fact that five states had allowed blacks to vote in 1788.

Taney next declared that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional, and that the Constitution did not grant Congress the power to bar slavery in the territories. Taney argued that the federal government served as a “trustee” to the people of the territory, and could not deprive the right of slaveowners to take slaves into the territories. Taney asserted that only the states could bar slavery.

Finally, the majority opinion held that Dred Scott remained a slave. [4] Justice Taney’s Dred Scott ruling is today widely considered to be the worst Supreme Court decision ever made.

Taney Going after Lincoln

To make political matters worse, when Abraham Lincoln was elected, Taney took Lincoln to task, sympathizing with Southern states who wanted to secede from the Union. Taney blamed the President for the unrest and ensuing Civil War and he lay the lives lost on all sides of the battles at Lincoln’s feet. In ex-parte Merryman Taney held that the President could not suspend the writ of habeas corpus and he held one of Lincoln’s generals in contempt of court.

After railing for years, Taney finally relented in his legal lobs at Lincoln claiming, “I have exercised all the power which the Constitution and laws confer on me, but that power has been resisted by a force too strong for me to overcome.” Taney died in 1864, a year before Lincoln’s assassination.

Lincoln High School

Teaching at Lincoln High School in Portland, Oregon for the past six years, I feel the weight of the decisions that have been made by citizens, students, Supreme Court Justices, Presidents, legislators and teachers. I pray everyday to remember that all of us in the classroom, good and bad, were in some ways shaped by our teachers. One of my strongest prayers is to lift up all students.

I would never want to crush the spirit of a student the way Sr. Mary Dionyse did to us. Do I forgive her? Not really. Do I understand her? Not at all. Somehow her sense of right and wrong, educational ethics, corporal punishment, and classroom justice got warped and flayed along the way.

Where do any of us get our ideas, principles, and moral compass? Our families? Our religion? Our experiences? Our coaches? Was Sr. Mary Dionese merely a victim of her years in Taneytown, a small town whose name is for an arrogant Catholic family? She firmly believed that she was following God’s calling and never spared the rod to protect her perceived grievances. Her mission seemed to be to meet out just punishment on the liars and cheats in her care.

And why was it that Roger Taney was so jaded? What led him so far astray from a Christian outlook? His Dred Scott opinion is astonishing in its ignorance and divisiveness. He obviously felt that he was on the right side of God’s and man’s law. Yet, how did such a bigot, racist, slave-owning, clever lawyer become the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court? Taney’s pernicious falsehoods and damning legislation resonant today through the racial injustice all over our country. Perhaps, exploring those deep creases and crevasses, we will find where the truth lies, and create a path to a better future.

FILE PHOTO – This Nov. 17, 2009 photo, is a statue of Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney in front of City Hall, in Frederick, MD.

With the outcry to remove Taney’s statue at the Supreme Court, perhaps we can recall the lessons we have learned and have a more just and equitable high court in the Land we claim as home. But first we should retrace how we got here and acknowledge where we must mend our mistaken belief systems.


[1] https://www.cathedralofmary.org/

[2] Sr. Dionyse SSND: Kathryn Anita Caufield was born on March 13, 1920, the second of two children of Joseph and Mary McCabe Caufield in Brooklyn, New York. She attended parochial and public elementary schools in Brooklyn and Bridgeport, Connecticut and graduated from St. Angela Hall Academy in Brooklyn in 1937. That summer, August 28, 1937, she entered the School Sisters of Notre Dame and took on the name Mary Dionyse.  

Sister Mary Dionyse earned a degree from the College of Notre Dame. She taught at St. Mary, Malden, MA; St. John, Leonia, NJ; and School of the Cathedral, Baltimore

Sister served as portress at the College of Notre Dame, Baltimore; and taught at St. Joseph, Taneytown, MD; Academy of the Holy Angels, Fort Lee, NJ; again at Cathedral School, Baltimore; St. Pius X, Baltimore; St. John, Frederick, MD; and St. Margaret Mary, Harrisburg, PA. Sister Kathryn Anita’s ill health forced her to return to Baltimore many times during her teaching career.

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roger_B._Taney

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dred_Scott