The Hampton Nuns Case

Chapter 18 -- Part 5

Back to previous section -- Forward to next section -- Return to Table of Contents
Few Hampton events have captured as much national attention and caused as much local controversy as the 18-month-long story of the four teaching Sisters of Mercy of Sacred Heart School. In January 1982, the nuns -- Principal Honora Reardon, Mary Rita Furlong, and sisters Justine and Catherine Colliton -- were told in an unsigned memo that their teaching contracts for the coming year would not be renewed by the Diocesan Superintendent of Schools. The memo charged them with being inaccessible to the parish community, with ignoring the school board's concerns, with being cliquish, and with harboring ill feelings that had affected their attitudes and behavior in the school and parish. In effect, they were fired.

Supported by some 200 parents and parishioners, the nuns decided to contest the firing by hiring a lawyer, beginning what became a classic conflict between church and state. The nuns filed suit in Rockingham County Superior Court against officials of the Diocese of Manchester and the local church school board, asking the court to rule their teaching contracts valid and not to be terminated until retirement or until both they and the diocese mutually agreed. The diocese answered, arguing that church law, and previous court cases, had determined that the church schools are under the authority of the bishop. As parish pastor Father Gerard Boucher explained, "This is a case of the sisters having to obey orders, just like you and I do; it's as simple as that."

Unfortunately, the case was not that simple. Usually private concerns kept within a parish community were made public, splitting the local church into those who supported the sisters, those who supported the diocese, and the many parishioners who sought only to have the acrimony end. The parents formed the Ad-Hoc Committee to Save Our Sisters, opening an information center and raising funds for the legal battle. Local newspapers were filled with letters to the editor, and it was not long before the national media carried the story across the country and around the world. The sisters' plight became part of nightly news programs and they made appearances on the "Today" show in New York, where interviewer Jane Pauley seemed incredulous. "You can't do that [sue the Bishop] .... You're Roman Catholics," she said.

In April 1982, Superior Court Judge Joseph P. Nadeau denied the nuns' suit, ruling that the diocese acted properly when it did not issue new contracts, that the sisters were not entitled to an explanation or a formal hearing, and that the court would not examine the validity of the reasons for the firing because that would require an extensive inquiry into church doctrine and policy. The four nuns appealed to the New Hampshire Supreme Court; meanwhile, they refused to vacate their living quarters in the church convent when the school year ended, and the diocese hired a layman to become the new principal. Two of the school's lay teachers and several staff members, in support of the nuns, resigned their positions, calling the conflict "a farce." Since no religious teachers applied for the vacant positions, laymen were hired to staff the school when it opened in September. In the wake of the conflict, the usual school enrollment of 230 students dropped to 130, as parents who supported the nuns withdrew their children in protest.

The sisters scored a major victory in December, when the Supreme Court reversed the lower court's ruling, saying that although the dispute was between the church and its members, a teaching contract was a civil matter and the terms of the contract had not been adhered to by the diocese. The Superior Court was ordered to review the case to determine if there was a breach of contract. Although the sisters said they only wanted their jobs back, Supreme Court Judge John W. King said that "reinstatement is generally considered inappropriate remedy for a breach of contract for personal services, even if the party ... is willing to perform."

Finally, in May 1983, just a week before the Superior Court was to hear the case, the diocese and the sisters agreed to an out-of-court settlement. The nuns were permitted to remain in the convent until July 1984, but they withdrew their demand to have their jobs back. Bishop Odore Gendron repudiated any allegations against the sisters and the diocese agreed to find them jobs elsewhere in New Hampshire. The Colliton sisters are now teaching in a Catholic high school in Newport News, Virginia, and the other sisters still live and work in the seacoast area, one as a teacher in a public school. On the day the settlement was announced, Father Boucher told the parish that he and Father Gordon McRae were being reassigned, saying the parish could best be served by having clergy who had not been present during the conflict.

Back to previous section -- Forward to next section -- Return to Table of Contents