Thomas Jefferson's 1804 Letter
To Sister Marie Theresa Farjon de St. Xavier
1727, twelve nuns from France arrived in New Orleans, founded
a convent, and began an educational mission that has continued
into the twenty-first century. These Sisters of the Order
of St. Ursula provided medical care for New Orleans and
built a school that, today, is both the oldest, continuously-operating
school for girls, and the oldest Catholic school in the
United States. Few could have predicted that the founding
of this religious community in a French colony would have
led to one of the more important exchanges of letters in
American religious liberty history.
Ursuline Sisters are a Catholic religious order founded
in 1535 in Brescia, Italy, by St. Angela Merici. They spread
throughout Europe and, eventually, to every continent. By
the early nineteenth century, there were 350 Ursuline monasteries
in France with around 9,000 sisters. D. Dunkerley, et
al. "Ursulines," 14 New Catholic Encyclopedia
New Orleans Ursulines maintained contacts with their sisters
in France. By 1803, when the United States purchased New
Orleans and the Louisiana territory from France, this religious
community had learned to fear the power of government to
compromise their religious calling. By then, the Ursuline
Sisters knew much of the attack on monasticism and on Christianity
itself that arose during portions of the French revolution.
They knew that in 1790 the French National Assembly government
forbade nuns from wearing religious garb and decreed the
state confiscation of property owned by religious communities.
Jo An Kay McNamara, Sisters in Arms: Catholic Nuns Through
Two Millenia 555 (1996). They knew that agents of the
revolution had pillaged some convents and shuttered others.
Id. at 556.
By 1792, the revolution had sought to destroy Christianity
and replace it with the cult to the Goddess of Reason. It
replaced the Biblical seven day week with one of ten. In
1793, a decree required the deportation of priests who refused
to swear an oath of allegiance to the revolutionary government.
Thomas Bokenkotter, A Concise History of the Catholic
Church 252-53 (1990). Thirty to forty thousand priests
were thereafter hounded into exile. Id. at 253. The
following year, the death penalty was imposed on those who
returned. Id. Between September 3 and September 5,
1793, three bishops and 220 priests lost their lives to
mob violence and government lynchings. Id. In October
1794, ten Ursuline Sisters in Vallenciennes were tried and
found guilty of operating an "illegal" school. Each lost
her head by a guillotine of the revolution. McNamara, supra,
were fresh memories when the Ursulines of New Orleans came
under authority of the United States due to the 1803 Treaty
of Cession.(*1) The new American regime
excited other fears. The former French and Spanish colonists
of Louisiana--separated from Americans by religion, custom,
law and language--considered their civilization superior
to that of the Americans. They resented any American attitude
that Louisiana was a conquered territory available for exploitation.(*2)
The Ursuline Sisters also likely feared how the United States,
mostly Protestant and Anglo-Saxon, would treat Catholic
March 21, 1804, Sister Marie Theresa Farjon de St. Xavier,
wrote President Thomas Jefferson (click
here for text). Sister Marie Theresa was the Superior
of the Ursuline Sisters in New Orleans. Please, she wrote,
give us assurance that "the spirit of justice which characterizes
the United States of America" will guarantee that the Sisters
would have "the continued enjoyment of their present property."
And, please, she added, "put [it] officially in writing."
May 14, 1804, Jefferson replied (click
here for text
). He assured Sister Farjon that "the principles
of the constitution and the government of the United States
are a sure guarantee [that your property] will be preserved
to you sacred and inviolate, and that your institution will
be permitted to govern itself according to it's own voluntary
rules, without interference from the civil authority." He
then offered more: "be assured [your religious institution]
will meet all the protection which my office can give it."
remarkable letter, omitted from the better known collections
of Jefferson's papers, constitutes one of the clearest statements
from the founding generation about the freedom of the church.
This freedom, often identified as the Doctrine of Church
Autonomy and, in earlier times, as the abstention doctrine
was more fully articulated in the Watson v. Jones,
80 U.S. (13 Wall.) 679 (1871) (click here to see the text
of Watson and here
to read a commentary on Watson
and the Doctrine of Church Autonomy) and the over 1,000
published precedents relying upon it.
Treaty of Cession between the United States of America and
the French Republic, Apr. 30, 1803, 1803 U.S.T. LEXIS 10;
7 Bevans 812 (hereinafter, "Treaty of Cession"). The text
of the Treaty of Cession is available at http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/american_originals/louistxt.html
(last visited Aug. 4, 2006). According to Article three
of the Treaty of Cession, "[t]he inhabitants of the ceded
territory shall be incorporated in the Union of the United
States and admitted as soon as possible according to the
principles of the federal Constitution to the enjoyment
of all these rights, advantages and immunities of citizens
of the United States, and in the mean time they shall
be maintained and protected in the free enjoyment of their
liberty, property and the Religion which they profess."
MCKENNA RICHARDS, A Historical Account of Louisiana's
Civil Law: A Civil Law Island in the United States,
available at http://review.society.cz/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=51&Itemid=2
(last visited Aug. 3, 2006).
Rothgerber Johnson & Lyons
LLP thanks the Ursuline Convent Archives and Museum, 2635
State Street, New Orleans, Louisiana 70118 for providing
copies of President Jefferson's and Sister Farjon de St.
Xavier's correspondence. The Ursuline Sisters and their
ministries suffered badly from Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Readers are urged to contribute to their mission. The firm
also thanks L. Martin Nussbaum, Esq. and summer associate,
Peihuan B. Kao, for preparing this commentary.