By Marty Denzer
Catholic key Reporter
KANSAS CITY — In the 150 years since the Benedictine Sisters arrived in Atchison, Kan., to open a school at the request of the prior of St. Benedict’s Abbey, they have established and/or served in schools and parishes, health care and senior living facilities, and made many friends in both Kansas and Missouri.
Atchison, just across the Missouri River from St. Joseph, was settled in 1854 by immigrants from Missouri, incorporated in 1855, and reincorporated as a city in 1859.
In 1856, at the request of John B. Miege, S.J., Vicar Apostolic of Leavenworth, two Benedictine monks from St. Vincent’s Arch-abbey in Latrobe, Penn., arrived in Atchison to open a school for Kansas pioneers. In 1858, the monks opened St. Benedict’s College, a boarding school with six students. The college offered classical academics in preparation for the priesthood, as well as a commercial course of study.
Several years later, Father Augustine Wirth, prior, requested a group of Benedictine Sisters of the St. Cloud, Minn., community relocate to Atchison and open a school.
In remarks Nov. 10, the vigil before the year-long sesquicentennial celebration at Mount St. Scholastica Monastery opened, Sister Anne Shepard, prioress, described those sisters.
“Our foundresses from their poverty contributed all they had, their whole livelihood. … Seven sisters ventured here … to be a monastic witness in the wilderness of Kansas. … young, idealistic, creative, frugal, other-centered, and adventurous.”
The sisters arrived by ferry Nov. 11, 1863, which was recounted a century later in “The Meaning of the Mountain,” by Sister Mary Faith Schuster.
“The [Civil] war had brought restlessness and fomented all manner of misunderstanding. Mr. Finney, the wharfmaster, had heard of threats to burn down the house if sisters came. The house that stood at Second and Division Street, a stately little building … Besides the personal safety of the sisters, it was important that the house be protected … That night, an hour before midnight, James Kennedy and Lambert Halling, carpenters for the abbey, were swinging lanterns up and down the street in front of the newly built convent. … The sisters were aware of no worry that night. To the swinging of the friendly lanterns, they reached the convent … as long as they lived, they would remember the stagecoach, the river, the singing as they came, and … that lights were lit for their arrival.” In commemoration of those lights, a lit lantern is used as their sesquicentennial symbol.
The sisters wasted no time in honoring the prior’s request. St. Scholastica’s Academy, named for St. Benedict’s twin sister, opened Dec.1, 1863, with 44 students enrolled.
In 1877, the sisters purchased at public auction, Price Villa, the home of Judge John Price, and moved from their original location near St. Benedict’s Abbey. The former villa, renamed St. Cecilia’s, housed Mount St. Scholastica Monastery and the academy.
A 1915 history of Atchison County describes the academy’s curriculum. “A most comprehensive plan of study is pursued at Mt. St. Scholastica … all branches needful for a thorough, liberal and refined education, the outcome of long years of experience … That this … is appreciated … may be seen by consulting the academy roster, which records a long list of names from many sections of the country. Besides the … classical course, Mt. St. Scholastica furnishes a complete commercial course, together with special advantages for the study of music and art.”
It continues. “The home life of Mt. St. Scholastica is ideal. The association of fellow students amid wholesome environments … bring out and develop every noble and womanly quality, while the beneficent and judicious guidance of the Sisters … leads to the attainment of those … principles so needful to right living.”
By the early 1890s, the sisters had carried their mission to other parts of Kansas, to Nebraska, Colorado and Iowa, and across the river to Missouri.
The Diocese of Kansas City was erected in 1880, with Bishop John J. Hogan as its founding ordinary. A decade later, he established Our Lady of Sorrows Parish for German-speaking Catholics southwest of downtown. In Jan., 1891, two Benedictine sisters opened its school. They remained until 1899, when the Franciscan Sisters took over. They then returned to the monastery in Atchison.
From 1897-99, sisters staffed Immaculate Conception School in Higginsville.
Mount St. Scholastica monastery and the choir chapel in use today were built in 1900. The sisters were glad for the larger quarters a few years later. Between 1904 and 1906, Mount St. Scholastica received eight French sisters, refugees from the anti-Catholic campaigns of the Third Republic under Emile Combes. By 1905, most Catholic institutions were closed and the clergy and religious expelled from France.
The 20th century was a busy one for the sisters of Mount St. Scholastica.
Three sisters came to Kansas City to establish Guardian Angels School, which opened in 1910 with 40 students. The school was on the first floor of a two-story building housing the school and chapel with the convent in the basement. Cattle grazed under the windows.
In 1990, the sisters withdrew from the school. Three sisters remain in residence at the parish: Barbara McCracken works at Keeler Women’s Center, serving all of the metro area, Therese Elias, serves as a spiritual director and leader of Kansas City oblate groups and Sharon Hamsa recently retired from Longview College.
Edwin V. O’Hara was named Bishop of Kansas City in 1939. One of his first orders of business in the diocese was to establish new co-educational high schools. He asked the Benedictine Sisters of Mount St. Scholastica to open one of the high schools.
The prioress agreed and, in 1940, land was purchased for the high school to be named in honor of Kansas City’s second bishop, Thomas F. Lillis (1913-1938). The high school opened in 1941. A new convent was built across the street from the school in 1963. Although Lillis High School closed in 1979, Benedictine sisters still live at the convent, now named Peace House.
For some time, the Mount retained ownership of the high school building, renting it to De La Salle Education Center for $1 a year. De La Salle High School, a Christian Brothers ministry, had educated young men from 1911-71. It reopened as De La Salle Education Center, an alternative high school for the poor in 1971. It moved into the former high school in 1979, and the Center purchased the building from the sisters in 1991.
Five sisters call Peace House home. Sisters Esther Fangman, counselor and speaker; Suzanne Fitzmaurice, teacher at Cristo Rey High School; Patricia Seipel, teacher at Visitation School, Maria Heppler and Molly Brockwell, who work in Kansas.
The sisters also had charge of St. Bernadette’s School from 1962-1986. It closed in 2003.
Two other Benedictine Sisters of Mount St. Scholastica work in Kansas City, Mo. Sister Rita Killackey works in the Tribunal office of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, and
Sister Maria Nguyen is a social worker at Kansas City Dialysis Center.
The Diocese of St. Joseph was erected in 1868, founded by Bishop John J. Hogan. St. Joseph and Kansas City were realigned into one diocese in 1956.
The sisters of Mount St. Scholastica carried their mission to St. James School in St. Joseph in 1914. The parish had opened the school in 1909, with lay teachers the first three years. The sisters then took charge of the school and remained until 1998.
A few years later the sisters also took charge of St. Joseph Cathedral School. Cathedral School had been opened in 1901 by the “Madames,” Religious of the Sacred Heart, who had operated Sacred Heart Academy in St. Joseph since 1853. They returned to the academy in 1920, and the Benedictine sisters took over, remaining until 1987.
When the “Madames” closed their academy and left St. Joseph in 1960, the Benedictine sisters undertook to provide Catholic secondary education to the city’s girls. During the building of the new high school, named for Charles LeBlond, last Bishop of the Diocese of St. Joseph, the sisters lived and taught at the old Sacred Heart Academy. Bishop LeBlond High School was dedicated and opened in 1962. When Christian Brothers High School closed in 1970, the sisters agreed to take on providing boys a high school education, and LeBlond’s enrollment doubled. The sisters taught there until 1994.
Four sisters live and work in St. Joseph. Sisters Evelyn Gregory, spiritual director and leader of Benedictine oblates in St. Joseph; Elaine Gregory, pastoral minister at Laverna Village in Savannah; Susan Holmes and Barbara Conroy work in hospice care for Heartland Regional Medical Center.
No matter where they live or work, sisters return to the Mount for events, retreats, meetings or just to pray, laugh and recharge their batteries.
Elsewhere in the diocese, the sisters from Mount St. Scholastica taught at St. Benedict’s Parish school in Clyde, which opened in 1920. The Benedictine sisters of Clyde had decided to pursue a contemplative life and withdrew from activities outside the convent, including a girls’ academy, their ministry since 1882. The parish operated both an elementary and a high school, but during the Depression, without state aid, debts at the high schools at Clyde and at nearby Conception, mounted. St. Benedict’s pastor, Father Andrew Kunkel, O.S.B., and Father Sisbert Burkard, O.S.B., applied to the Missouri State Board of Education to have the schools accepted as district public schools, and receive state aid. Both high schools became public. The sisters taught at Clyde’s high school until 1950, when Jefferson High School was built. In 1959, they withdrew from the grade school, citing lack of personnel. The school closed that same year.
Two Catholic parishes in Maryville had schools. Sisters arrived from the Mount to teach at St. Patrick’s (the Irish parish) in 1910. The Franciscan sisters, who had staffed the school for years, wished to return to their first mission, St. Francis Hospital at Alverno.
The next year, 1911, saw the Benedictines take charge of St. Mary’s (the German parish). The sisters taught at both grade schools until 1959.
In 1960, St. Patrick and St. Mary parishes were combined to form St. Gregory Barbarigo Parish. A new grade school opened in 1963, and the sisters taught there until 1992.
Sisters also traveled from the Mount to Montrose, to teach at Immaculate Conception parish school in 1917, remaining until 1970.
St. Ludger’s Parish School in nearby Germantown was established in 1867 and from 1873 – 1944, Sisters of the Precious Blood, Sisters of Notre Dame, and later Franciscan sisters taught there. Benedictine sisters took charge from 1944 until it closed in 1959.
The sisters in Atchison established Mount St. Scholastica Junior College in 1924. By 1932, it had become a senior college and conferred its first bachelor degrees. In 1934 the college achieved full accreditation by the North Central Association.
Then in 1949, the sisters opened Donnelly College in Kansas City, Kan. The two-year college continues as a ministry of the Benedictine Sisters.
During the next two decades, the sisters established four daughterhouses, or dependent priories. Monasterio de San Benito, Mexico City, was established in 1944. It became an independent monastery in 1950. St. Lucy’s Priory, Glendora, Calif., established in 1952, became independent in 1956. Benet Hill Priory, Colorado Springs, opened in 1960 and was independent by 1965. Dependent priory, Mosteiro Santa Maria Mãe de Deus, Mineiros, Goias, Brazil, was established in 1964.
The 1970s brought changes to the Mount. The Benedictine sisters and monks had long collaborated in the ministries of St. Benedict’s and Mount St. Scholastica colleges. In 1971, they merged to form Benedictine College, on the campus of St. Benedict’s Abbey. Major renovations in 2010 transformed St. Cecilia’s, the Mount’s former academy building, into housing for monastery guests and retreatants.
The sisters remain committed to education. “Just about everything we do has a strong educational element,” Sister Anne said. “Our work with women at Keeler Women’s Center, with literacy, substance abuse, job training, knitting, spiritual direction, etc. has many educational components … Our counselors teach coping skills and self esteem. We teach music. And we still have sisters in formal Catholic education at all levels. All are committed, competent and compassionate.” She herself is a past diocesan superintendent of schools for the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese. Keeler Women’s Center, which serves women and men metro wide, is directed by Sister Carol Ann Peterson, a former associate superintendent of schools in this diocese.
The community began their anniversary with a vigil Mass, Nov. 10, 2012. A number of events have already occurred. Kansas City Day, a celebration with families, friends and alumni, will be Sept. 15. A 2 p.m., Mass will be celebrated at St. Pius X Church in Mission, Kan., followed by a reception in the parish hall.
On Nov. 10, the eve of the final day of the 150th year, the sisters will celebrate together.
“The year has brought us together as a community,” Sister Anne said. “We have prayed and laughed a great deal.”
The next century waits. Sister Anne said, “At our anniversary assembly at Benedictine College, a student asked me about the future. ‘How long will you be around?’ I answered, ‘We came to Atchison to do a work that wasn’t being done. We have continued to respond to God’s call as the years passed. I suspect that if we stay open to the Spirit and faithful to the monastic way of life, we will be here at least another 150 years. Working for and with the people of God is a great ministry.’”