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‘One blessing upon another’ for trailblazing couple who were among first students to integrate Sacred Heart School in 1950

Carmen Torruella-Quander and her husband Rohulamin Quander pose for a portrait at their Washington, D.C., home. As young children, they were among the first four students of color to integrate Sacred Heart School in Washington in 1950. (Catholic Standard photo/Mihoko Owada)

Their love story spanning many decades began in an unlikely way when they met at a friend’s birthday party in August 1950.  Rohulamin Quander, then 6 years old, was playing hide-and-go-seek and chased Carmen Torruella, who was 5, into a large empty box and playfully tried to kiss her.

Later they became high school sweethearts. “He was my first boyfriend,” she said. The couple married in 1977 at the Shrine of the Sacred Heart and raised three children, and in June 2022 they marked their 45th wedding anniversary.

But Rohulamin Quander and Carmen Torruella-Quander shared another special connection. In September 1950, one month after the birthday party, they were among four students bounding up the steps of Sacred Heart School in Washington, D.C., who became the first students of color to integrate that Catholic school.

Two years earlier, Archbishop Patrick O’Boyle became the first resident archbishop of Washington and resolved to integrate local Catholic parishes and schools. In Washington, segregation was then entrenched in public facilities and businesses and even in its Catholic churches, where Black Catholics suffered the indignity of being expected to sit in the back of some churches and wait until the end of the Communion line.

In September 1950 – four years before the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling that outlawed segregation in public schools – Rohulamin Quander, who was a native Washingtonian, entered the second grade at Sacred Heart School. His Quander family is one of the nation’s oldest documented African American families and traces its roots to forebears in the 1670s in the Maryland and Virginia colonies. His maternal grandfather, for whom he is named, was born in India. 

Carmen Torruella, also a native Washingtonian, had Dominican and Puerto Rican parents and entered kindergarten at Sacred Heart School that fall, joining her brother Ramberto Torruella who entered the first grade there. Also among the four students to integrate Sacred Heart School that fall was another first grader, Quander’s friend Richard Washington, whose father was African American and whose mother was Dominican.

“I really was a trailblazer. I didn’t know it at the time,” said Carmen Torruella-Quander. “Me too!” added her husband, Rohulamin Quander. He explained, “At the time I went to Sacred Heart School in September 1950, I was 6 years old and turned 7 in December. I did not fully understand or appreciate the magnitude of what was going on.”

Earlier this year, the couple returned to Sacred Heart School, more than seven decades after they and two other students of color integrated the school, and they were interviewed by the Catholic Standard for an upcoming Black Catholic Voices video feature. Rohulamin Quander, who is 78, is a retired senior administrative law judge for the District of Columbia who earned a bachelor’s degree and a law degree at Howard University. Carmen Torruella-Quander, who turns 77 in mid-July, is a noted artist who often paints historical subjects depicting people of African or Latino descent. She studied at the Corcoran School of Art, the Pratt Institute and the Arts Students League in New York, New York University and The Catholic University of America. In addition to painting, she worked as an instructor and curator of fine art for more than 30 years. Both are longtime members of St. Augustine Church in Washington. 

Earlier this year, Carmen Torruella-Quander and her husband Rohulamin Quander returned to Sacred Heart School in Washington for an interview, to talk about their experiences in helping to integrate the school beginning in 1950. (Catholic Standard photo/Mark Zimmermann)

As children, they didn’t realize they were making history at Sacred Heart School. Now as adults they appreciate what they and their two fellow pioneer students of color accomplished there.

“Looking back, it was a major positive step to recognize the fullness of what it meant to be an American and what it meant to be a member of the Catholic Church,” Judge Quander said. “The determination to still go forward and not give up or leave is what we built our foundation upon, and that firm foundation is with us today.”

At center, Rohulamin Quander, then a second grader at Sacred Heart School in Washington, poses with classmates outside the Shrine of the Sacred Heart after they received their First Holy Communion there in May 1951. (Family photo)

Returning to Sacred Heart School, the couple was interviewed in a classroom where English as a second language is taught. When Carmen Torruella-Quander began school as a kindergartener at Sacred Heart, she had the challenge of learning English. Now seven decades later, Sacred Heart School is the only dual language immersion school in The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, offering a bilingual education in Spanish and English to students.

As she viewed the entrance to her school again, she later told a friend that she almost cried when she saw Sacred Heart School’s name displayed in big letters in English on one side of the doorway and in Spanish on the other side – Escuela del Sagrado Corazón.

The name of Sacred Heart School is displayed in English and Spanish at the school’s entranceway in Washington, D.C. The Catholic elementary school offers a bilingual education in those languages to its students. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

“I loved the place. I loved the school. I loved the academy,” said Torruella-Quander, who graduated from Sacred Heart School in 1959 and from the adjoining Sacred Heart Academy four years later. She added, “It’s very meaningful to come back in this building, because it has so many good memories.”

After receiving her First Holy Communion in May 1953, Carmen Torruella – then a second grader at Sacred Heart School in Washington, poses for a photo with Msgr. Jerome Winter, who was then the pastor at the Shrine of the Sacred Heart. (Family photo)

Totally different experiences 

She noted that with her husband – whom she affectionately calls “Ro” – being African-American and her being of Latino descent, their experiences inside and outside their Catholic elementary school were totally different in those years. 

“I had all nuns from the second through the eighth grade, and I found them all very good,” said Judge Quander, remembering the Sinsinawa Dominican sisters who taught him and his classmates. He added, “The students by and large were good, too. But there were differences, and the differences were measured in terms of things that happened.”

One memory that still stings is how he was not allowed to be an altar boy at the Shrine of the Sacred Heart while he watched his white classmates begin serving. “I went to the first class and we started. Never another word was said about forming the class. Next thing we knew, they were on the altar. I was not,” he said.

Other incidents of racism that Judge Quander remembered happened outside the classroom, and mostly involved adults. He recalled going to a neighborhood playground with classmates, “where they literally threw me out.”

The rampant segregation in the Washington area prevented him from joining the Boy Scouts until around the seventh grade, when he could camp with fellow Scouts in places like West Virginia and Pennsylvania, because “in Southern Maryland, they wouldn’t let the colored come in.”

He remembered how when his Sacred Heart class graduated in 1957, they avoided a neighborhood restaurant because the year before the proprietor had complained about “Negro or colored families” coming there and said he didn’t want them to come back.

“These types of things popped up. They didn’t offend me as much (then)… I was a child. I didn’t have the full appreciation” of what was happening, he said.

Judge Quander remembered how as a second grader, a fellow student invited him to play at his house after school. But as he walked up the steps, the boy’s grandfather ran out and said, “You can’t come in here.” The next day the student apologized to him, explaining that, “My grandfather said he didn’t want any colored people in his house unless they work there.”

As a fourth grader, he started walking home from school with a little girl who lived near his house. “She told me one day, ‘I can’t walk home with you anymore.’ I said, ‘Why?’ She answered, ‘Well, you’re colored. I didn’t know you were colored.” Judge Quander said her mother “saw us and told her not to walk with me anymore.”

He also remembered in the seventh or eighth grade how a classmate seemed to invite all the other students to his birthday party, and the boy casually explained, “My mother said we can’t invite the colored kids.”

“So there were these exclusionary activities. The children were really learning from their parents,” he said. He added, “I had good white friends. But it was one or two pins that were sticking me, that made me aware of the reality of what was going on.”

Perhaps his worst experience of racism came later when he was a student at Archbishop Carroll High School, where he graduated in 1961, and where he and his Black classmates remain close friends and dub themselves “the Soul Brothers,” along with a white graduate and friend, Father John Mudd, a longtime priest of the archdiocese. But Judge Quander remembered how one fellow Carroll student who was himself an immigrant called him racial slurs and told him “to go back to Africa,” which he said was ironic since documents show his family has been in the United States since the late 1600s.

Remembering that insult and other incidents of racism he experienced, Judge Quander added, “But you know, we can’t spend our time there, because the Catholic Church is much larger than some of the individuals and their negative attitude.” 

Carmen Torruella-Quander said she could remember only one negative experience during her years as a Sacred Heart student, the time her mother – Juana Amparo Campos – came to school for a conference with one of the women religious who taught there. Carmen was translating for her mother, a native of the Dominican Republic. The nun told her, “Tell your mother not to speak to you in Spanish,” which was very insulting to her mother, a well-read woman who didn’t speak English.

Judge Quander likes to quote the title of one of Maya Angelou’s famous poems, “Still I Rise,” to reflect the approach he has taken throughout his life, to look forward and upward.

“We’ve come a long way, and we still have a long way to go. Overwhelmingly it (going to Sacred Heart School and then Archbishop Carroll) was a good experience, not just for me, but for the benefit to the total community. I was just a small piece of it,” he said.

Rohulamin Quander, then a second grader at Sacred Heart School in Washington, poses for a photo to mark his First Holy Communion there in May 1951. (Family photo)

He noted that his late father Deacon James Quander – a member of the pioneer class of the first group of permanent deacons ordained in the United States in 1971 – was among a group of Washington-area African Americans with deep Catholic roots in Southern Maryland who pushed for equal treatment in their society and their church.

“They were pretty universally united to the fact that we had to bring change, and they were committed to bringing that change, and if they had to do it using their own children, they were going to do it. They were still very protective (of us),” he said.

Honoring their parents

Both Judge Quander and his wife praised the example of faith that they learned from their parents. 

“As far as Catholicism, I believe my soul is Catholic, but it wasn’t just the school, it was augmented by our parents,” said Carmen Torruella-Quander. Her mother, Juana Amparo Campos “was focused on her church and the needs of our community,” she said, remembering how her mother advocated for a Spanish-speaking priest to be assigned to the Shrine of the Sacred Heart. Since one arrived in the 1950s, generations of Spanish-speaking families there have received the sacraments from priests speaking their native tongue. “My mother fought and said, ‘We (Spanish-speaking Catholics) are not leaving, we’re coming, and more of us are coming. We need this.’”

Later, when Torruella-Quander was elected to Sacred Heart’s parish council, she continued her mother’s advocacy, pushing for a daytime Sunday Mass in Spanish there, providing a more convenient time for that growing community to worship together. Continuing a legacy that her mother helped establish at Sacred Heart, the Dominican community there continues to celebrate the annual January feast day of Nuestra Senora de Altagracia (Our Lady of High Grace), the patron saint of the Dominican Republic.

Judge Quander has drawn special inspiration throughout his life from the example of his father, Deacon James Quander who died in 2004 at the age of 86, defying the odds after being diagnosed with juvenile diabetes as a child, and living a long life marked by service to his nation as he worked in various government agencies, and serving his Church. The pioneer deacon assisted two future saints at papal Masses, Pope Paul VI at a Mass in Rome in 1975 and Pope John Paul II at the Mass on the National Mall in Washington in 1979. Over the years, Deacon Quander was known for his ministry of counseling people in need of help, and for supporting senior citizens.

Deacon James Quander of Washington, at far right in the first row, was among the first permanent deacons ordained in the United States in 1971 after that ministry was revived in the Catholic Church. At center in the first row, joining the pioneer class of deacons is Cardinal Patrick O’Boyle, then the archbishop of Washington, and next to him at right is Josephite Father Eugene Marino, who later served as an auxiliary bishop in Washington and as the archbishop of Atlanta. (The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington photo)

When James Quander was a youth, he attended a novena at St. Paul’s Church, which later became the site of St. Augustine Parish’s current church. Then it was a predominantly white and segregated parish. James Quander was told by an usher to move to the back of St. Paul’s Church, and he refused.

“My father said, ‘No, I’m not moving,’” Judge Quander said, adding that the priest after the novena told his father to “go to his own church.”

“My dad said, ‘I am in my own church. This is a Catholic church, and I am a Catholic, and I am making this novena… I’m not going anywhere.’”

Judge Quander said his father spoke those words when he was 11 or 12, offering a prelude to a long life marked by seeking justice in his country and his Church.

“He stood up, he spoke out, and he represented us well… We appreciate all he did for our community,” said Judge Quander, who co-wrote his father’s life story in a 2006 book, The Quander Quality: The True Story of a Black Trailblazing Diabetic.

The judge’s great-grandfather, Gabriel Quander was a delegate at the first National Black Catholic Congress in 1889 at St. Augustine Church in Washington, which was then called the Colored Catholic Congress and included the participation of Father Augustus Tolton, the first recognized Black Catholic priest in the United States whose cause for sainthood is currently under consideration.

Judge Quander’s latest book, The Quanders – Since 1684, an Enduring African American Legacy, chronicles his family’s story. Many members of the Quander family over the years have helped establish Catholic churches in Washington, D.C., including Peter Mercer Quander Sr., a veteran of the Navy in World War I who was a founder of Holy Redeemer Parish in 1922, which this year marks its centennial.

In the acknowledgments in his latest book, Judge Quander first paid tribute to “my dear wife Carmen,” who he called “my shining star,” and he also praised their adult children Iliana, Rohulamin II and Fatima, and all his Quander ancestors, “whether born free or enslaved,” and he made special mention of George Floyd, the African American man who died when a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck during an arrest in 2020, spurring nationwide protests for racial justice.

In the interview, Judge Quander said, “The Church has got to be relentless in facing the issue” of racism. He added, “The Church can lead the way and has led the way and must continue to lead the way, because the Catholic Church is one of the most important institutions in this country. There’s no other extant institution that’s been around for over 2,000 years.”

Carmen Torruella-Quander and her husband Rohulamin Quander pose for a portrait at their Washington, D.C., home. Rohulamin Quander is a retired senior administrative law judge for the District of Columbia, and on the wall behind them is his portrait as a judge, painted by his wife, who is a noted artist. (CS photo/Mihoko Owada)

A love story built on faith

The twin legacies of their faith, and their shared experiences at Sacred Heart School,  helped bring Rohulamin Quander and Carmen Torruella-Quander together.

“I would say that our love story blossomed around Catholicism and education,” Judge Quander said. “It did,” his wife agreed.

When they got married in 1977, Rohulamin Quander and Carmen Torruella shared their vows at the Shrine of the Sacred Heart, where they had earlier received their sacraments of First Holy Communion and Confirmation.

“Where else would we be? Everything was there for us,” she said, later adding, “He’s been the love of my life – all my life.”

Her mother was impressed by how Deacon Quander always brought his family to church every Sunday. Carmen Torruella-Quander said her husband emulated his father’s example, and she remembered how one snowy Sunday morning, he pulled their three young children on a sled to bring them to Mass at St. Anthony’s Church near their home.

“The kids thought it was fun, and they were little,” she said.

When they married, Torruella-Quander followed a Latin American tradition and gave her husband a religious medal, selecting one depicting St. Martin de Porres, a Black Catholic saint. He never takes that medal off, and his wife never takes off her religious medal that depicts her patron saint, Our Lady of Mount Carmel.

Reflecting on their lives together during the wide-ranging interview, Judge Quander said, “So this is who we are and this is what we believe. And it has been nothing but one blessing upon another. Adversities fall into everybody’s life. But we focus on the good, not the bad or the ugly. But today I just have to in this interview bring out some of the challenges… But we have to keep on going.”

Enduring legacy

In some ways, Sacred Heart School in 2022 mirrors the school in 1950 that Rohulamin Quander and Carmen Torruella-Quander helped integrate. It’s in the same sturdy stone school building nestled in the heart of its Mount Pleasant, Adams Morgan and Columbia Heights neighborhoods, offering a Catholic education in Spanish and English to 225 children, 85 percent of whom are Catholic. But now 70 percent of the students there are Hispanic, 10 percent are white, 10 percent are Black, and 9 percent are multi-racial, with the remaining 1 percent of Asian heritage.

First graders Keiry Sanchez and Jayce Romero work on a classroom exercise at Sacred Heart School in Washington, D.C., in a photo taken in March 2022. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Now Sacred Heart School is one of four Catholic elementary schools in the city that are part of the archdiocese’s Consortium of Catholic Academies. 

In an email interview, Sacred Heart’s principal, Elise Heil, expressed how she reveres the legacy of the pioneer students who integrated their school.

Judge Rohulamin Quander and his wife Carmen Torruella-Quander were guests of honor at a May 2021 Mass that Washington Cardinal Wilton Gregory celebrated for Sacred Heart students at the Shrine of the Sacred Heart, and Heil said their presence reminded her of her responsibility “to work toward justice in our school and in our parish.”

“Sacred Heart School quite simply would not be the school that it is today without the involvement of the Quanders and their families,” Sacred Heart’s principal said. “If you walk through the halls of our school on any given day, you'll hear students speaking in Spanish and English in their classrooms. You'll see students of diverse cultural backgrounds sitting together and collaborating on assignments.  It's hard to imagine it any other way – and I'm so glad that I don't have to!”

In a photo taken in March 2022, first graders at Sacred Heart School in Washington, D.C., work on iPads in their classroom. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)