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In Russia during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the education of the common people was sadly neglected. Indeed, the colonists on the Lower Volga, together with the native Russian peasantry, were the victims of a deliberate policy on the part of the government to discourage, for political reasons, the education of the masses.
The German immigrants, however, refused to let their children be deprived of an education. Receiving no help from the government, they erected private schools in each of the colonies and attempted, as best they could, to instruct the children. Each village was forced to finance its own school. No money could be raised by taxation, and the people themselves were poor. All these causes worked together to prevent the schools from developing to any noticeable degree. A schoolmaster (Schulmeister), who at the same time was sacristan and choir director, presided over each village school, some of which contained as many as two and three hundred pupils. There was no division into grades, no standard textbooks, and, in fact, no system whatever. Conditions such as these readily account for the fact that numbers of the pioneers in Ellis County can neither read nor write.
After coming to the United States the immigrants attempted to educate their children. Private teachers, who taught in German only, were employed to conduct school in some private dwelling. Thus, at Herzog we find Peter Linenberger, who had studied at the seminary at Saratov, teaching first in the home of John Sander, and later in the home of Alois Dreiling. At Schoenchen, John Dreher taught in his own home, while at Catherine, Jacob Schmidt, who had been a schoolmaster in Katharinenstadt, Russia, instructed the children regularly for years.
These private schools were, however, but temporary makeshifts. The colonists soon learned that schools could be maintained by taxation, school districts were organized, public school teachers employed, and the English language taught.
But it is with the parochial school that the history of the development of education in the colonies is most closely connected, and in these schools was the greatest progress made.
The first parochial school in Ellis County was opened at Victoria in September, 1879, by Sisters Agatha and Aurea of the Congregation of St. Agnes; who had come to Victoria for this purpose on August 29.
Until 1888, the church built by the Hon. Walter Maxwell served the double purpose of church and school. In that year Father Anselm Bayrau, 0.M. Cap., built a large, four-room school which measured 66x30x23 feet. Northeast of the school a convent was built for the Sisters who until this time had lived in an annex built to the church. The present commodious school building, which contains eight large class rooms, was completed in July, 1898, by Father Gabriel Spaeth, 0.C. Cap.
For years the first church in Munjor was used as a school on week days. The present stone schoolhouse was completed in September, 1893. It measures 74x36x37 feet, contains five class rooms, and cost about $3,600.00.
At Catherine the first school was built in 1879. In 1902 the present four-room stone structure was erected. At Pfeifer a large parochial school measuring 65x4O feet, two stories high, was built in 1897-98. Schoenchen and Liebenthal also have parochial schools conducted by Sisters.
The beginnings in the parochial schools were very humble. In the first years the curriculum embraced but reading, writing, arithmetic, religion and singing. Both German and English were employed, the former in the morning and the latter in the afternoon. In addition to the sisters, who taught daily, the pupils received religious instruction at stated-times from the pastor, who likewise conducted periodic examinations.
Due to a number of causes, progress was rather slow in the early days. Many of the older people were not very enthusiastic about education, attendance at school was irregular and intermittent, the children frequently being kept on the farms as long as possible in fall, and removed from school very early in spring; not accustomed to special assessments, the fee of fifty cents per month per child proved to be quite a burden to many parents; at home and on the village street the only language used was German, and as a result, the children made but little headway in English. Though they learned to read and write it, fluency in speech was lacking, a defect which to some extent is noticeable even today.
In the course of time, however, all these hindrances to progress were removed. Indifference and apathy have given way to a genuine eagerness for education, children are sent to school regularly, and the people willingly make many sacrifices to keep up their schools. Every parish school has been standardized, the curriculum extended so as to embrace all the branches required by the laws of the state, and all the Sisters have teachers' certificates. The result of all this is easily seen in the graduates sent out by these schools. In every respect they are equal if not superior to the pupils of the public schools.
Nor has higher education been neglected in the colonies. The first attempt in this field was made by Rev. Lawrence Becker, 0.M. Cap., who in 1893 opened an advanced course for boys at Hays. Owing to poor crops in the immediately succeeding years, however, this course was discontinued on May 14, 1895. The project was revived in 1906 when the Capuchins opened Hays Catholic College.
Of recent years quite a number of children of the colonies are attending various institutions of higher education. The young men attend chiefly: St. Mary's College, St. Mary's, Kas.; St. Benedict's College, Atchison, Kas.; St. Francis Solanus' College, Quincy, Ill.; St. Fidelis College, Herman, Pa.; St. Louis University, St. Louis, Mo., and Creighton University, Omaha, Neb., while the girls usually choose one of the following: Nazareth Academy, Concordia, Kas.; Mt. Carmel Academy, Wichita, Kas.; St. Scholastica's Academy, Atchison, Kas.
Progress in education has been especially pronounced during the past fifteen years. A number of parishes have introduced high schools, and the demand for higher education for boys especially has become so insistent that the Rt. Rev. Bishop Tief has found it necessary to sponsor the erection of a new college. The comprehensive plans for this undertaking, the consummation of educational progress in the colonies, contemplate the erection of a series of buildings costing about $1,000,000.00. The administration building, a magnificent structure of brick and terra cotta, is now under construction.
Transcribed from The Golden Jubilee of German-Russian Settlements of Ellis and Rush Counties, Kansas, August 31, September 1 and 2, 1926
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