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President Thomas Jefferson's 1804 Letter
To Sister Marie Theresa Farjon de St. Xavier

In 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.

The 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 491-95 (1967).

The 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, at 558.

These 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 institutions.

On 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."

On 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."

This 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.

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(*1) 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."

(*2) 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.


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