By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY – The Sisters of Loretto have been a force in education, human rights and the empowerment of women since they were founded in 1812. The 200th Jubilee celebration began in January and continues all year. The local celebration, a reunion and family picnic at the former Loretto in Kansas City, Masses at St. James and Guardian Angels Churches, and a visit to the old Loretto Academy took place March 24-26.
In 1812 three young Kentucky women, realized that local girls needed education and religious formation. Mary Rhodes, Christina Stuart and Ann Havern responded to that need and found that living and working together fulfilled them. They approached their Belgian-born confessor, Father Charles Nerinckx, about forming a religious community.
The priest outlined a simple rule for “The Little Society of the Friends of Mary under the Cross of Jesus,” and the three women began living their religious life April 25, 1812, now celebrated as Loretto Foundation Day. They professed vows June 29, 1812. Their Rule included “the glory of God and the honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary; a perpetual contemplation and a thoughtful remembrance of our dear Redeemer with the sorrows of his beloved mother; and the propagation of our holy religion by instructing youth and by paying any spiritual or corporal service compatible with the spirit of the institute.”
An abandoned log cabin near Hardin’s Creek became the nexus of their institute. Father Nerinckx rebuilt the cabin and the Sisters christened it Little Loretto, after an Italian shrine which honors the Nazareth home of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. It wasn’t long before they became known as the “Sisters of Loretto at the Foot of the Cross.”
The community grew rapidly. In 1823, Bishop Louis Dubourg, of Louisiana and Missouri, invited Sisters to open a school in Perry County, Mo. Twelve set out on the long trek to Missouri, leaving 78 Loretto Sisters behind in Kentucky.
Soon after the Sisters established their new home at The Barrens, Father Nerinckx traveled to Missouri to visit them, became ill and died in St. Genevieve. Meanwhile, back in Kentucky, the remaining Sisters moved two miles from Hardin’s Creek to St. Stephen’s Farm, founded by Father Stephen Theodore Badin about 1806, and established a motherhouse there. The Sisters opened their first academy near the motherhouse in 1834. The town that grew up around it was later named Loretto.
The area surrounding the motherhouse was called Nerinckx in honor of the founder of the Loretto Sisters. When a post office was established there in 1899, the spelling was shortened to Nerinx. It is still home to the Loretto motherhouse.
Their reputation for educating children, hard work and capability under adverse conditions grew quickly and spread across the country. In “The Life of Charles Nerinckx,” published in 1880, author Camillus Maes wrote, “A new field … opened to the missionary zeal of the [Sisters] in the year 1852. Right Rev. Jean Baptiste Lamy, bishop of Santa Fe, New Mexico … applied for a colony of sisters, and his request was cheerfully granted; faithful to its traditions … Loretto could not refuse a mission which seemed to promise nothing but hardships and privations.”
Mother Matilda Mills and Sisters Catherine Mahoney, Magdalen Hayden, Monica Bailey, Roberta Brown and Rosanna Dant were chosen to undertake the journey west and on June 27, 1852, left Loretto. All went well and, after visiting several Loretto-run institutions in the area, the Sisters met up with Bishop Lamy. On July 10, the bishop and the six Sisters boarded the steamer, Kansas, for Independence, the Santa Fe Trail head.
During the trip upriver, Mother Matilda, 33, contracted cholera and died later that day, shortly before they were to dock at Independence. Maes wrote that, “Two hours later, the steamer landed at Mr. Todd’s warehouse, six miles from Independence.” For fear of contagion, town officials would not allow Mother Matilda to be buried in their cemetery. Local farmer Christopher Stayton took pity on them and offered to bury Mother Matilda in his family’s burial ground, east of Independence. Ironically, Stayton Cemetery was incorporated into Woodlawn Cemetery in 1922 — Matilda rests in the city cemetery.
Bishop Lamy lodged the other Sisters in Independence temporarily, but local infectious disease laws forced Sister Monica, who had also contracted cholera, and her caregiver Sister Magdalen, to remain at Todd’s warehouse. Although Sister Monica was unable to continue the journey, Sister Magdalen rejoined Bishop Lamy and the other Sisters in the wagon train. That was the first instance of the Loretto presence in the Kansas City area.
Over the years, a number of the Sisters passed through the growing city on their way southwest to teach Mexican, Indian and pioneer children, and in 1889, several came to Kansas City to teach at St. Patrick School, founded in 1872 at 9th Street and Cherry. Loretto Sisters took charge of the school in 1889, remaining until 1893. They withdrew, citing “the scarcity of Sisters … Death and inability has thinned our ranks, thus obliging us to withdraw …” Sisters of Mercy took over, staying until the school closed in 1912.
Loretto Sisters began teaching at three-year old Sacred Heart Academy in 1892, gradually taking over from the Sisters of Providence. The Loretto Sisters purchased the property in 1893 and readied the Second Empire style building for their academy.
For the next six years the Loretto Sisters used the first two floors of the building as classrooms, music rooms and parlors, and lived on the third floor. In the basement were the Sisters’ kitchen and dining room, student washrooms and a recreation room with a stage. There the students ate lunch, played and chatted during bad weather.
In 1901, the home of Missouri-Pacific Railroad agent Col. E. S. Jewett at 35th and Broadway, came up for sale. The Sisters purchased the 10-room home for an academy, which opened Sept. 9, with Sisters Louise Wise, Eloiska Verret, Joseph Mary Hikox, Emmanuel Buckler, Florencetta Friel and Olivette Norton, and 21 female students.
The curriculum was progressive for the Victorian Age. Girls studied music and fine arts, grammar, literature and languages, literary and dramatic arts, and at the high school level, were also taught chemistry, biology, physics, astronomy, botany and mathematics.
In 1902 the Sisters purchased land at what is now 39th Street and Roanoke Road, and in Sept. 1903, opened Loretto Academy to both boarding and day students. Their promise to Bishop Hogan was fulfilled. Eva Fox became Loretto Academy’s first graduate in 1904.
In 1906, the academy was accredited by the University of Kansas and in 1916 by the University of Missouri. From 1926 on, it was accredited by North Central.
By 1914 the Loretto academic program enabled its graduates to enroll at the University of Kansas as sophomores. In later years, Loretto graduates were consistently well prepared to enter universities and colleges all over the country. Ron Barrett, Ph.D., Director of K.U.’s Adaptive Aerostructures Laboratory, a member of the 1984 graduating class, wrote in an email, “… it was a playground for the mind. While the traditional ‘good’ school is considered ‘college prep,’ Loretto was a Grad-school prep education, exposing us to open-ended, thesis-question-based, experiential learning exercises all the time.”
Young women from all across the city attended the Academy and, as a result, students from De LaSalle Academy and Rockhurst High School often found their way to Loretto to try and talk to the girls. Ruth (Smith) Denzer attended Loretto 1934-38. One of her favorite memories of the academy, shared 60 years later, concerned the cupola atop the building’s central tower. Academy girls would sneak up the tower stairs to the cupola and lower baskets tied to ropes to the ground, out of sight of the Sisters. The boys would fill the baskets with candy, notes and other goodies, and the girls would reel the baskets back up to their hiding place, whispering and giggling! At some point, one of the Sisters discovered the loot, and the practice was stopped.
From the beginning, the Sisters encouraged religious, economic and ethnic diversity in their school enrollment. By the 1940s, students from Latin America and Kansas City area Hispanic students attended Loretto Academy. Native American boarding school students had been accepted as far back as the 1920s.
In 1947, Carmen (Forte) Carter, 15, an honor roll student at the unaccredited St. Monica’s High School, became the first black student enrolled at Loretto Academy. Wanting Carmen to go to college, her stepfather, attorney Lewis Clymer, had written Kansas City Bishop Edwin V. O’Hara that May, requesting an appointment to discuss “educational opportunities for Negro Catholics in accredited Catholic schools here in Kansas City.”
Bishop O’Hara, known for his commitment to racial equality through active membership in organizations such as Catholic Action, the NAACP and Kansas City’s Urban League, set to work behind the scenes to get Carmen admitted to Loretto Academy.
In early August he wrote the Clymers: “Loretto Academy and all our high schools are in accord in regard to the admission of all educationally qualified Catholic children.”
He told the Sisters that “he would back us in whatever we did,” Sister Marie Lourde Conboy, Loretto Academy principal, later wrote. The oft-repeated story of Bishop Hogan escorting Carmen to Loretto on her first day is not true. He remained behind the scenes, backing first the Loretto Sisters and eventually all Kansas City Catholic high school principals as they accepted black students.
On her first day at Loretto, Carmen and her stepfather walked up the front steps where they were confronted by a small group of angry parents. She had been unaware of the covert activity involved in her enrollment and never considered the racial situation, leaving her unprepared for those who opposed her admission.
Twenty five students were removed from Loretto Academy that day, five years before the landmark Brown v Topeka case desegregated public schools nationwide, but by 1949, Bishop Hogan, Glennon and Lillis high schools, as well as Rockhurst High School, agreed to accept black students. By the early 1950s black students were accepted into all Kansas City, St. Joseph and St. Louis Catholic schools.
Education of children was an integral part of the Sisters’ charism — they also taught at Sacred Heart and Our Lady of Good Counsel elementary schools. Loretto Sisters had begun teaching at Sacred Heart as early as 1892, renaming it Sacred Heart Academy in 1894. By 1903, they lived at Loretto Academy, still teaching at Sacred Heart.
Loretto Sisters began teaching at Our Lady of Good Counsel School in 1908, when Sisters M. Florencetta Friel and Sophronia Soller took charge of 97 students. Virginia (Burns) Daub, who celebrates her 90th birthday April 9, fondly remembers her teachers from the late 1920s through the mid 1930s.
“My teachers were: in primmer, which was what they called kindergarten, and first grade, Sister Jean Marie (Bohrer); for second and third grades, it was Sister Ludavene (Mueller.) Sister Mary Frances taught fourth and fifth. For sixth grade I had Sister Wilfred (LaMotte), and for my last year, seventh grade, I had the principal, Sister Januarius (Lysaught). I loved Our Lady of Good Counsel. The Sisters made hot cinnamon rolls for our breakfast every First Friday. Remember, we had to fast for 12 hours before going to Holy Communion, and we all attended Mass on First Fridays. By the time Mass was over, we were so hungry! Those were the best cinnamon rolls. And since I was always skinny, the Sisters gave me extra milk. They tried to take care of everything!”
The Sisters lived at Loretto Academy and took the street car to Our Lady of Good Counsel. In bad weather, Virginia’s father drove to Loretto and brought the Sisters to Good Counsel to pay them back for all they did for his children, Virginia said.
Their teaching methods were effective. “If we didn’t do our homework,” she remembered, “we had to stay in at recess and after school the next day until it was finished. And the Sisters taught us, especially the girls, to stand up for ourselves.”
The Sisters taught a special needs child to read and write. “They really worked with her,” Virginia said. “Otherwise she might not have had any education. This was the 1930s.”
The Sisters’ kindness stands out in her memory. “They were very kind. My little brother had abscesses in his ears. I remember Sister Jean Marie would rock him in a rocking chair until he felt better or they sent for me to take him home. If a student got behind, they stayed late, working with that student to help them catch up,” she added. “They were kind, but they kept order. I learned more from them than I did in public high school.”
Construction of the Southwest Trafficway in the early 1960s dramatically changed the neighborhood as families were forced to move elsewhere. In 1968, a Diocesan planning committee met regarding Our Lady of Good Counsel and three other schools. Good Counsel had long been tuition free — a drain on parish finances when the average parishioner’s age was 60. The committee decided to close Our Lady of Good Counsel School in 1969 and finance programs for older parishioners.
Since the early 1960s, the Sisters had formally involved their students in observation, analysis, and action in areas of social responsibility and justice. That commitment became more evident in Loretto’s later decades. Several former Kansas City Loretto Sisters, including co-members Therese Stowalwy and Maureen Smith, marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, several local priests and members of other communities in the 1965 March on Selma, Ala. Smith taught at both Kansas City Loretto campuses and is now an attorney and senior’s advocate at Redemptorist Center.
Sister Eleanor Craig worked with visually impaired students at the Kansas State School for the Blind until 2011, taking a group each summer to experience the Oregon Trail. In September she begins as an archivist at the Motherhouse in Nerinx, Ky.
Loretto-run schools were academically strong, due partly to faculty training and professional expertise. Even before women as a rule completed college degrees, Loretto Sisters and lay teachers often held advanced degrees in the sciences and humanities. Many of the Sisters taught full-time while attending classes themselves.
The “City Course” of the 1970’s required Loretto’s high school seniors to volunteer at hospitals, child care facilities and schools. Field trips and speakers at Loretto addressed human rights, peace and justice issues, empowerment of women and the Vietnam War.
The Loretto Sisters remain committed to carrying on the spirit of social justice education. There are 22 Loretto Sisters in Kansas City, including Sister Cathy Smith, a chaplain at Truman Medical Center. Co-member Kathleen Kennedy is a social service provider at Bishop Sullivan Center. The oldest living Loretto Sister, Mary McNellis, 102, a longtime activist in anti-racism and other justice issues, is cared for by Sister Barbara Doak, who is active in elder care and peace and justice work. Others work for gender equity in International Criminal Court statutes through the U.N., and in non-governmental organizations.
In 1964, the Academy’s neighborhood was rezoned for light industry and many homeowners moved. The Sisters began seeking a new site and that summer found 38 acres on a tree-covered hill crest at 12411 Wornall Road. A building complex of natural stone, heavy shake shingles and large windows was built on the site, and in Sept. 1966, the Sisters opened Loretto in Kansas City for K-12 students. The old Academy property was purchased by Calvary Bible College in 1966. The Bible College moved to Richards Gebauer AFB in 1982 leaving the building vacant for several years. Added to the National Historic Register in 1983, it is now The Loretto, apartments, wedding and corporate venues. The Georgian Revival building has been restored to its 1903 beauty.
In 1967, Loretto in Kansas City was named a national model for creative education and, in 1970, Rick Vorce, 6, became the first male registered in the lower school. Over the next decade, Loretto faced a transition from religious to lay leadership, escalating costs, declining enrollment and, in June 1984, the board voted to not open that fall.
Ron Barrett wrote “… I learned more about life, people, society’s do’s and don’ts from my six years at Loretto than I learned in any other period … I am profoundly grateful.”
The Kansas City Academy of Learning, an independent, private middle and high school, was founded in 1984 by co-member Martha Fly, former principal of Loretto in Kansas City, and Sister Carole Eschen. KCA, “Loretto’s Legacy School,” continues the educational philosophy and social responsibility training initiated by the Sisters of Loretto more than a century ago. Founded at the Trinity United Methodist Church in Midtown, KCA moved to its present home at 78th and Main about 1992.
Kathy Baldwin-Heitman, a 1980 Loretto graduate, joined the KCA staff in 1998 as the Director of Development, and was named head of school in 2011. She became a Loretto co-member in 2001. Co-members are men and women of various faith traditions who share ministry and fellowship with the Sisters.
“It’s important,” she said, “for people to know the Loretto philosophy lives on at KCA.”
Over the course of two centuries, the Sisters established, taught at and ran 61 parish schools, high schools and academies, junior and senior colleges for women in 15 states, a tradition that continues today with institutions of secondary and higher education in Denver, El Paso, St. Louis, South America and Africa.
Today 215 Sisters and 215 co-members live and work in 31 states and 11 countries.
The 200th Jubilee celebration continues with events in Denver, St. Louis, El Paso, Nerinx and Louisville, Ky., and Santa Fe, N.M., concluding with the Jubilee Awards in St. Louis Dec. 8. Kansas City’s Loretto community will celebrate 125 years in 2014.