The crux of the matter

Gerry Phelan
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They’ll be coming to lynch me after this column — it’s sure to cause a fuss with my Roman Catholic friends and family. But here goes: it’s time to remove crosses and other religious symbols from our schools.

I was raised a Catholic and went through the Christian Brothers’ school system. I received an excellent education, and hold my head high when I talk about St. Pat’s or Brother Rice. My fault was never with the religious part of the schooling. It was that boys went to one school and girls to another. When the denominational education controversy erupted in the 1990s, I spent a good half hour bending Brian Tobin’s ear on the subject, hearing his logic for changing the system, while he listened to my own experiences and defense of Catholic education.

On Sept. 2, 1997, more than 70 per cent of those who voted in the provincial referendum opted for change. That night, premier Tobin told us that a year later, “after a constitutional amendment has passed in both the legislature and the House of Commons, there will be no unidenominational schools, no interdenominational schools, no integrated schools … no Catholic, no Pentecostal schools … just one single school system for all of our children.”

A lot has changed since then, but I’m surprised it has taken almost 15 years for someone to suggest a cross on a school be taken down.

The Eastern School District will do just that after a parent sent a written complaint about the cross outside St. Matthew’s Elementary in St. John’s. The school board says it is acting on legal advice, that if the parent made a Charter of Rights complaint to the Human Rights Commission, the board would have to remove the cross.

The parent apparently felt the cross was an inappropriate symbol in a non-denominational, public education system. There are plenty of schools in this province adorned with crosses. I say take them all down.

And while we’re at it, let’s rename the schools that carry the names of saints.

St. Peter’s can become Mount Pearl Public School No. 1; Holy Heart might be Bonaventure Avenue High. Oh, wait, Bonaventure is a saint. Better call it St. John’s Public School Six. Several schools named after bishops would need new names, too.

And while we’re at it, for those who might be offended by the monarchy, maybe we should change Queen Elizabeth High to something else.  

I found it hard to believe when I was told a few years ago that nativity scenes were not allowed to be displayed in certain schools; Santa, though, was just fine.  

I guess, given what some would like to be the new norm, we’ll have to be careful of the gifts we give nieces and nephews, let alone boyfriends and girlfriends. Crosses on gold chains may soon be a no-no. Maybe they already are.

Soon, hospitals and nursing homes will have to remove their statues and crucifixes. They are public buildings.  We wouldn’t want to offend anyone there, either.  

Seriously, don’t we have enough to spend our sparse education dollars on without having to remove symbols that form part of a school’s history? We’re not talking swastikas here.

I know the Catholic Church has taken something of a beating in recent years, perhaps deservedly so, but we are a predominantly Christian province, and the schools that still carry that symbol of my faith do so because they always did. We don’t see them on newer schools. Religious tolerance works both ways.

The school board says it will deal with similar requests on a case-by-case basis. At a bare minimum, I’d suggest the entire school community be consulted before such decisions are made. If the majority wants the symbol removed, so be it. If not, leave well enough alone.   

As for my opening suggestion about removing them all, I was kidding. I guess I’m just surprised there hasn’t been more of an uproar.

Gerry Phelan is a journalist and former broadcaster. He can be reached at

Organizations: Christian Brothers, House of Commons, Human Rights Commission Catholic Church

Geographic location: Mount Pearl, Bonaventure Avenue

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Recent comments

  • Colin Burke
    June 04, 2013 - 15:59

    I'm not sure 'tis strictly true to say religious orders merely "filled the gap in the outports." I've an impression religious orders originally provided most of the education available even in St. John's until the government here, as governments did elsewhere, decided to intrude where governments have no business to intrude except maybe to forbid the teaching of spurious history, and an even more spurious approach to economics, in the teaching of which our government-run system of "education" now excels.

  • Jerome
    June 01, 2013 - 09:30

    If it wasn't for the education provided by the Catholics and others, everyone over sixty, would be illiterate today. Yes, some that learned to read and write were also physically and sexually abused by their teachers. We all know the stories. When there was no money (or inclination) to provide an education to the outports of this province, it was the various religious orders that filled the gap. After all, if you can't read or write, and all you know is working from sun-up to sun-down, then you would make the kind of worker that the educated of the elite were looking for. Is it too much to ask that we remember our past?

    June 01, 2013 - 07:11

    If you read the 1997 Schools Act you will see that people can be excempt from religious observances. If you can be excempt from religious observances, it means that religious observances is the legal norm and not having them is the exception to the rule. Parents can also request to hold religious observances in the school which can not be denied. Therefore, put more crosses up!

  • Petertwo
    June 01, 2013 - 06:11

    It has been said that one of Islam's contentions with Christianity is the use of crosses, religious symbols, paintings et cetera, being, as they contend, against the second commandment as adopted by Christianity from the Hebrew faith. Just a comment.

  • Bob Hannaford
    May 31, 2013 - 23:41

    I wonder how many of those so vehemently against Christian symbols accepted a paid holiday or double time to work on Good Friday instead of simply working for a regular day's pay and refusing anything extra.

  • Joey S
    May 31, 2013 - 14:17

    Ah the charter of rights and freedoms. Everyone has rights but no one has rights and freedoms!

  • Maggy Carter
    May 31, 2013 - 13:39

    I would agree that "the Catholic Church has taken something of a beating in recent years" - most of it not only well deserved but self-inflicted. Nowhere is this more evident than in the lead-up to the 1997 constitutional amendment eliminating religious influence in our schools. The churches were offered half a loaf in exchange for accepting educational reform. Stupidly, the Catholic Church opted for an all-or-nothing approach which, of course, gave them nothing. But for the obstinance of archbishops like Penney and MacDonald, the trustees at St. Mathew's wouldn't be dealing with this issue in the first place. But, in the second place, it seems they folded their tent with great haste based on one amateurish legal opinion. Far be it for me to defend the Catholic Church, but in one respect I think the interests of Christian churches generally and the people of this province coincide. Those interests transcend narrow religious considerations. They impinge on our culture, our history and the sense of heritage that defines us as a nation (which of course we were until 1949). The gist of the capitulation by the trustees at St. Mathew's is that the Human Rights Act provincially and the Charter of Rights federally somehow compel us to purge all our public institutions of Christian symbols. This is based on a flawed interpretation of the law; moreover the Supreme Court of Canada has established no legal precedent that would compel such action. Taken to its natural conclusion, the St. Mathew's decision would lead to an absurd requirement to eliminate symbols that are ubiquitous among public institutions across Canada. Are we now to break all the stained-glass windows that adorn many of our older public buildings. On its face, it cannot be demonstrated in any convincing, practical manner that the mere existence of these symbols disadvantages or discriminates against non-Christians. What will St. Mathew's do, as Phalen points out, when the complainant in this case drops the other shoe – and demands that the prefix 'St.' be eliminated from the school name. What if, emboldened by his success with a few frightened school trustees, the complainant decides he doesn’t like the name of the province’s capital. Does city council throw in the towel and accept that we should be known hereafter simply as ‘John’s’. There is a point at which the desire to be politically correct becomes idiotic. I think the trustees at St. Mathew’s have exceeded that point.

  • Wild Rose
    May 31, 2013 - 10:50

    This is a Christian country and were losing our rights because of foreign immigrants coming here and telling us what to do. If you don't believe in God and our Savior then be quiet and mind your own business and stop being politicly correct NDP or go back to where you came from.

    • Jeff
      May 31, 2013 - 11:52

      I'm glad to see that you're a dying breed. Crawl back to the tarsands and take yoiur bigotry with you.

    • Too Funny
      May 31, 2013 - 12:14

      " If you don't believe in God and our Savior then be quiet and mind your own business". You may be unaware of a thing called democracy or unaware of another thing called taxes. Both of which makes it our business. Now if your god or saviour was to pay taxes then that would be different.

  • Colin Burke
    May 31, 2013 - 09:17

    I'd like to see the name of St. Thomas Aquinas Elementary School in Port au Port East changed to something far more generic. As it is, the name amounts to false advertising by government brainwashers trying to suggest we haven't really lost as much as many voted to give up. Those who did vote to give it up because government is more responsive to our democratic needs than churches are, now are often the ones complaining about the government's setting up one conglomerate school board, right? Dr. Paul Wilson in Corner Brook, particularly comes to mind here. (After arguing however many years ago that parents should pay for their children's religious education if they wanted it, Dr. Wilson later complained that parents were paying to a private Catholic school money which should be better used to support the public school system -- for which those Catholic parents were anyway being taxed as much, I believe, as anyone.)

  • Chantal
    May 31, 2013 - 08:39

    Removing the crosses and renaming the schools, nursing homes and every other PUBLIC institution makes perfect sense. I'm surprised that this wasn't done fifteen years ago.

  • Edwin Fowler
    May 31, 2013 - 08:03

    No icon of any faith should be displayed in any public building. You mentioned in your article " The Catholic Church has taken something of a beating in recent years, perhaps deservedly so" Gerry, you are familiar with the past court cases concerning sexual assault by "Christian Brothers" and priests; then why the "perhaps" in your statement? Does something make you blind to the truth, or does amen get stuck in your throat