The public school system in San Luis Obispo County got off to a rough start. Finding an appropriate classroom space was next to impossible in the tiny private abodes of this small pueblo. The only large rooms were in the mission.
In 1853, San Luis Obispo’s new county clerk, Virginia-born David Newsom, became the ex-officio superintendent of schools. The only operating school in the county was located in what is now the parish hall of the old mission.
The ownership of the mission buildings was being contested. Capt. John Wilson and James Scott had purchased the buildings from the Mexican civil administrator prior to the American conquest of California.
The structures were returned to the Archbishop of California by the United States Land Commission on Dec. 18, 1855. A presidential decree reinforced the church’s title.
But in 1853, the title to the buildings was in litigation. Newsom, as clerk and public administrator for the county, had custodianship over the mission. As superintendent of schools and public administrator, Newsom came into conflict with his friend, Father José Miguel Gómez.
The first schoolmaster was Don Guillermo (William) Searle. Searle was born in Chile to English parents.
Searle was a Catholic and instruction was in Spanish to an almost exclusively Hispanic student body. His appointment had been confirmed by the county supervisors several years before Newsom came to our county.
Later schoolmasters such as Ohio-born Eleutheros Americus Clark, the subject of “On the Banks of San Simeon Creek,” recently reviewed in this column, taught in English.
There were no textbooks. Most learning was by rote. The students would try to copy down dictation from the schoolmaster and commit it to memory. Their copying exercises were restricted by the great shortage of paper in California.
Somehow, Father Gómez had obtained a dozen or so Roman Catholic catechisms, which had been printed in Spain many years earlier. Searle, grateful for any printed material, used these manuals of religious instruction to teach reading.
When Newsom visited Searle’s classroom, he was horrified to find the religious books in a public school. Newsom, a Protestant, had been educated in the American tradition of strict separation of church and state. Newsom directed Searle to return the catechisms to Father Gómez.
Several days later, Newsom returned to the schoolroom. He found the catechisms still in use. Newsom gathered the books and took them to Father Gómez.
He explained that the use of the catechisms in a public classroom was contrary to the law. He requested that the books be kept out of the public school.
Newsom wrote that, “the good Father felt hurt and expressed sorrow at having to give up the children whom he had been teaching so many years.”
Prior to the establishment of the public school, Father Gómez had been instructing the students in that same classroom which, after all, was a part of the mission church.
Newsom recognized the dilemma. This was a clash of cultures and he hoped to achieve a mutually satisfactory solution.
He told Father Gómez that “ he had been in Sunday School from childhood and was for years a Sunday School teacher, and that he would assist him in establishing a Sunday School. This religious school was held in the same room as the public school, but only on Sunday. This pleased the priest very much. So we had both a public school and a ‘Sunday School.’ ”
Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.