September 27, 2016

Sisters of Loretto members reflect on history of education

By Rebecca Doran

Sister Annie Stevens, adjunct professor at Webster University, said  she felt as if she had found “the one” when she entered into the Sisters of Loretto. Instead of finding only one person she wanted to spend the rest of her life with Stevens said she found a whole group.

“I just got hit upside the head, as it were,”  Sister Stevens said. “It’s home.”

The Sisters of Loretto is a Catholic group that formed to address the need for education in the hills of Kentucky. It grew to comprise of both vowed Sisters and non vowed members.

Stevens, who always wanted to be a teacher, said the Sisters of Loretto was an excellent fit for her. The Sisters’ mission to teach motivated the group to travel the Midwest and establish schools in 1823.  In 1915, the Sisters laid the foundation for Webster University, and opened Loretto College.

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Sister Eleanor Craig stands next to a photo of Webster Hall in the Sisters of Loretto Motherhouse in Kentucky. PHOTO BY MEGAN FAVIGNANO

The Sisters of Loretto established the school as a women’s college. Although it opened in 1915, Sister Stevens said the seeds were planted in 1898. In that year, the Sisters bought the Webster House, which stands where Webster Hall is today.

While Webster has changed a great deal since the Sisters first opened the doors to Loretto College, Sister Stevens said she thinks the original mission of the institution — educating those who might not otherwise have access to higher education ­— endures. 

“If the (Sisters of Loretto) roots go deep,” Sister Stevens said, “the branches (of their influence) can go wide.

The Sisters of Loretto began in 1812 in Nerinx, Ky. when three women noticed a need for better education. According to the book “Loretto in Missouri,” the women — Mary Rhodes, Ann Havern and Christina Stewart — started the Friends of Mary at the Foot of the Cross with the help of Father Charles Nerinx.

In 1823, some Sisters traveled to Missouri at the request of Bishop Louis DuBourg, according to the St. Louis Star-Times. DuBourg needed teachers for the children out in the frontier.

At their  first residence in Perry County, the Sisters had no stove, and cooked their food outside on poles over a fire. During the early years, five schoolhouse fires and one tornado  occurred at Loretto-established schools in Missouri, according to an article in The St. Louis Star-Times.

Louise Rothermich, head of the research center and archivist at Nerinx Hall high school in Webster Groves, described the Sisters as bold visionaries. 

Rothermich recalled the story of Mother Praxedes Cart and her fight to save the group. At the time, the Bishop of Missouri was considering moving the Sisters out of his territory. When Mother Praxedes learned of this, she caught a boat destined for the Vatican to plead the group’s case. Having left in the middle of the night,  Praxedes was on the water before the Bishop even knew she was gone.

“They weren’t namby-pambies” Rothermich said.

Before Loretto College, the educational establishment was known as the Loretto Seminary for Young Ladies. The Seminary opened on Sept. 5, 1898, according to the thesis “The History of Webster College from 1897 to 1919”.

In 1907, the main building caught on fire, according to “Loretto in Missouri.” As nuns and students filed out of the building, the Sisters realized the Blessed Sacrament, the representation of Jesus Christ’s body and blood in wafer and wine form, was still in the burning parish. Accompanied by five-year-old Hattie Griffin, some Sisters returned to the burning building to save the Blessed Sacrament. As Griffin had been baptized a year before and was very young, the Sisters believed her to be the most pure and worthy to carry the Blessed Sacrament.

The Sisters asked the Vatican in 1908 for permission to rebuild the school. According to “Loretto in Missouri,” the land remained empty until Sept. 6, 1915, when Mother Praxedes broke ground for the construction of Webster Hall.

Sister Stevens said at the time women were not allowed to  study with men in Catholic universities. 

For those who enrolled early at Loretto College, the only courses available to them were in general education or more specific degrees like teaching, music, dramatic arts, home economy, social services or secretarial work.

Sister of Loretto Roberta Hudlow has worked at Nerinx Hall high school in Webster Groves for more than 20 years as a teacher and librarian. She agrees with keeping boys and girls separate in education, at least until college.

Sister of Loretto and Loretto Motherhouse archivist in Nerinx Ky. Eleanor Craig said the Sisters were revolutionary in the way they approached education. 

Craig said the Sisters’ teaching style used a co-education method that allowed the students and teachers to learn from each other.

“It was very freeing for me as a teacher to say ‘I don’t know,’” Craig said.

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