Old letter from Thomas Jefferson backs up Bush on government support for religious institutions


         An obscure letter written in 1804 by President Thomas Jefferson to a Catholic school in New Orleans affirms the role of government in "patronizing" religious institutions and supports the decision by President Bush this week to dramatically expand the role of religious groups in social programs.

         The letter, written in response to concerns nuns at the Ursuline School in Louisiana had concerning their status with the new government, not only assured the school of the government's "patronage," but also "all the protection which my office can give it."  

         "To All the Sisters and the Nuns of the Order of St. Ursula in New Orleans: I have received, holy sisters, the letter you have written me wherein you express anxiety for the property vested in your institution by the former government of Louisiana," wrote Jefferson in response to a letter from the superior, Sister Marie Therese Farjon of St. Xavier. "The principles of the Constitution and the government of the United States are a sure guarantee to you that it will be preserved to you sacred and inviolate and that your institution will be permitted to govern itself according to its own voluntary rules without interference from the civil authorities. Whatever diversity of shade may appear in the religious opinions of our fellow citizens, the charitable objects of your institution can not be indifferent to any and its furtherance of the wholesome purposes of society by training up its younger members in the way they should go cannot fail to ensure to it the patronage of the government it is under. Be assured that it will meet all the protection which my office can give it. I salute you, holy sisters, with friendship and respect. Thomas Jefferson, President of the United States."

         The letter is in a small museum at the Ursuline Academy (as it is now known), which remains the oldest continuously operated girls' school in the country. "It gives some pause to this whole big issue that we have become so embroiled in of the separation of church and state," notes the current president, Barbara Windhorst. "Jefferson easily saw the role these sisters were playing in making a better society. He was very supportive of them and what they were doing.  Bush is currently boosting religious charity and in 1804 Thomas Jefferson basically told the sisters the same thing."

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