Drawn Into a Moment in History

The Transformation of Sister Marie LeClerc Laux

By Michele Levandoski, Archivist, School Sisters of Notre Dame North American Archives

Sister Marie LeClerc Laux was born in 1926 in Menasha, Wisconsin. She professed her first vows as a School Sister of Notre Dame (SSND) in 1947, and her first assignment was at St. Boniface School in Milwaukee. In 1960, she was appointed the principal and convent superior.

In 1947, St. Boniface was a thriving school with over 800 students, but by 1960, enrollment had significantly declined as the neighborhood underwent a radical demographic shift. From 1916 to 1970, an estimated six million African Americans migrated from the south to cities in the northeast, Midwest and west. African Americans who migrated to Milwaukee lived almost exclusively in the city’s near North side in an area that became known as the ‘inner core.’

St. Boniface was located in the heart of the inner core and Sister Marie LeClerc witnessed these changes in real time. One of the issues in the inner core was that the African American community did not have a strong history with the Catholic church and many of the neighborhood’s residents didn’t trust the priests and sisters. Despite these initial fears, many African American parents sent their children to St. Boniface because they heard the SSND were good teachers and they wanted to give their children access to the best education they could.

Supporting the neighborhood

In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that state laws that allowed racial segregation in public schools were unconstitutional and American schools were ordered to integrate. The Milwaukee School Board created an integration plan called ‘intact bussing.’ Under this policy, entire classes of students from overcrowded, inner core schools would be bussed to a school that had room to accommodate them.

Sister Marie LeClerc Laux with an African American student in the 1960s.

On school days, students and their teachers would report to their school and would be bussed to the receiving school. While there, they would remain together as a class, instead of being incorporated into existing classrooms. From 1958 to 1972, over 36,000 students were bussed using this policy, the overwhelming majority of whom were African American. Because the five inner core parishes were located in predominantly African American neighborhoods and the priests and sisters felt that they had to stand with their neighbors, everyone agreed to boycott intact bussing. They knew if they wanted the community to trust them, they had to work with and identify with them.

In 1964, the newly formed Milwaukee United School Integration Committee (MUSIC) began a series of direct-action protests against school segregation and intact bussing. In 1964, MUSIC sponsored a one-day boycott of Milwaukee Public Schools. ‘Freedom Schools,’ which emphasized African American history and activism, were created as an alternative for the children who had parental consent to participate in the boycotts. In September 1965, MUSIC decided to sponsor a second school boycott, which was scheduled to start on October 18.

The priest and sisters, including Sister Marie LeClerc, working at inner core parishes and schools, got together to discuss the boycott. The group, with the support of the parishioners, decided to support the boycott by acting like a Freedom School for their community.

The days leading up to the boycott were filled with confusion. St. Boniface had plans to operate as a Freedom School, but after a series of back and forth, the bishop prohibited it, but he said nothing about individual priests or sisters participating in Freedom Schools. To make matters worse, the local newspapers were running stories about the back and forth disagreements between the pastors and the archdiocesan officials.

The day before the boycott was scheduled to start, the priests working at the inner core parishes issued a press release stating that they would not use parish or school facilities as Freedom Schools. Most people in the community, however, did not hear the announcement and on the first day of the boycott hundreds of children arrived at St. Boniface, expecting to attend a Freedom School.

“Education will transform people”

That morning approximately 300 children gathered outside of St. Boniface’s school. The students were a mix of St. Boniface children, who were waiting to catch a bus to a Freedom School, and neighborhood children who did not receive the message that St. Boniface would not act as a Freedom School. To make matters worse, the buses that were supposed to take the St. Boniface students to another facility did not arrive, but TV cameras and reporters did.

Father James Groppi, assistant pastor at St. Boniface, and Sister Marie LeClerc went out to talk to the children and told them that St. Boniface could not open as a Freedom School. She said telling the students that they couldn’t come in was the hardest part, because it felt like a betrayal.

In order to stall until other arrangements could be made, Father Groppi led the children in freedom songs and marched the older students around the block. He later mounted the steps of the church and said, “You know we can’t have a Freedom School at St. Boniface today. I don’t know where they will be. But until we get something arranged, we’ll sing out here.”

Meanwhile, Sister Marie LeClerc went to work sorting out the children who had permission to attend a Freedom School from those who were to stay at St. Boniface. She also took time to speak to parents and comfort the children who were scared because they didn’t know where to go. At some point, a supervisor from the archdiocesan school department arrived at St. Boniface to make sure that the priests and sisters were following Biship Atkielski request. Sister Marie LeClerc told the supervisor that she was too busy helping the kids and didn’t have time to talk, but the supervisor was welcome to look around.

A photo of Sister Marie LeClerc surrounded by children in the classroom.

The scene may have looked chaotic, but Sister Marie LeClerc said that things were under control and she took care of the younger children until transportation arrived. Father Groppi kept the older kids busy by singing before marching them to a Freedom School a few blocks away. He then spent the next two hours teaching the students African American history.

Sister Marie LeClerc later wrote in the St. Boniface parish paper, “Nationwide coverage publicized our obedience as defiance. Father Groppi merely led the great number of children off our grounds to churches of other denominations that accommodated our students…St. Boniface was on the national CBS News for two days.”

The boycott lasted three days, making it the longest school boycott in American history at that time, however, priests and religious were directed not to participate. The controversy within the Catholic church made national news, which brought attention to the boycott. The problem, though, was that it shifted the emphasis away from the segregation that existed in the public school system and more toward a debate about the role of clergy in civil disobedience.

When asked to reflect upon her participation in the boycott, Sister Marie LeClerc said that the situation was tense. She felt they were surrounded by people who didn’t understand what they were trying to do. She said the media and those who didn’t support the boycott portrayed them as something they weren’t.

A photo of Sister Marie LeClerc with young boy student

She received some hate mail and phone calls during this period. She didn’t keep the hate mail, but she remembers people sending postcards with words cut out of newspapers and magazines calling her obscene names and using racial slurs. In an anonymous letter, dated October 18, 1965, the writer asked why the sisters had to be involved in “this trouble.”

Sister Marie LeClerc remained faithful by praying and trusting in God. She said that the sisters prayed a lot and were convinced that this was the social justice issue of their day and they took part in it because segregation was wrong. She said that some of her best moments during the boycott occurred when she received letters from sisters hundreds of miles away who said that they didn’t necessarily understand what the sisters were doing, but they supported their decisions.

One sister wrote, “I still remember and will never forget the lesson of courage and love which you and your sisters gave last weekend. I will remember it as a lamp in some darkened room and I shall hold it high in my hand against whatever darkness. I pray for your continued courage in these trials and causes which you bear for Christ and his poor.”

 

This excerpt is from a longer article about Sister Marie LeClerc Laux’s journey from a young professed sister of a small town, to a “radical” who participated in various ways in Milwaukee’s Civil Rights movement. The full article is available on the SSND Archives page.

 
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