By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — A new sign greets the visitor near Sion’s Grade School entry drive at 38th and Locust streets. Up a low rise are eight flags waving in the breeze. Stand for a moment near the flags and listen to the sound of gently flowing water. Walk up the steps to a polished front entrance and admire the soft greys, pinks and white near the front desk.
Notre Dame de Sion recently finished an extensive renovation of the grade school building, which was dedicated in 1929. Chris Broderick, Sion Head of School since 2012, gave a brief overview of the improvements to the 87-year old building. The renovations were made possible through a generous bequest from the estate of Mary Shanahan, an alumna of the school. Her gift was unrestricted.
“Mary Owens Shanahan, a member of the Class of 1976, and her husband Mike, lived in California, but she never forgot us,” Broderick said. “When she died in October 2015, she left us a gift, which we used to paint the interior of the entire building, the entrance, all the classrooms, repurpose some of the rooms, and purchase some new furnishings. The swimming pool has been renovated. The grotto has been restored. We now have the flags of the eight countries where there are 18 other Sion schools: Australia, Brazil, Canada, Costa Rica, England, France, Turkey, and the United States.”
She waved a hand around the Salon, where she was seated. The walls aren’t flat. Square wooden molds form oblongs that encircle the room. The walls are painted a charcoal grey with the wooden squares picked out in a creamy white. The eye is drawn upward to the ceiling. The furniture is a dark wood, upholstered in a wine red. The effect is late Victorian, which is what was desired by the school. Broderick said their wish was to sustain the history of the school and integrate it with the future; architects and interior designers from Hollis and Miller of Kansas City did just that. “They helped integrate the past and the future with colors,” she added.
As she guided the visitor on a tour of the school, Mary Kenney, Assistant Director of Admissions, spoke of the school’s past and its future. Theodore Ratisbonne and his brother Alphonse were born in Strasbourg, France, to well-educated Jewish parents who were in the process of being assimilated into post-revolutionary society. Theodore found a mentor in Louise Humann, who inspired him to study scripture in depth and so drew him to Catholic Christianity. Theodore was ordained a priest in 1830. His younger brother Alphonse was ordained in 1842 in Rome through mediation by the Blessed Mother. Alphonse’s experience and response to Mary led Theodore to found an order of religious sisters, named in honor of the Blessed Mother, Notre Dame de Sion, in Jerusalem in 1856. Their charism was to serve as Christian witnesses to the faithfulness of God toward the Jewish people.
In 1892, the Sisters of Sion arrived in the United States, settling in Maine to teach young children according to the Montessori method. The order continued to grow and by 1904, there were 60 sisters. They began branching out to other countries, including Canada, Brazil and Australia. Twenty-five sisters moved to Marshall, Mo., in 1907, and remained there until 1925.
On July 6, 1912, the Superior in Marshall received a letter from Father William Dalton of Annunciation Parish in Kanas City, requesting sisters to staff his parish school and to start a French Academy. The Superior General in Paris had already notified the sisters to relocate. The very next day, the superior received another letter from the Superior General underlining the conditions under which they were to start a new foundation. She decided to check out Kansas City and requested permission to do so from the Superior General. Permission granted, the superior met with Father Dalton and Coadjutor Bishop Thomas Lillis on Aug. 19, 1912. She returned to Marshall eager to start anew in Kansas City. In September 1912, five sisters moved to Kansas City — two to teach at Annunciation School and three to start their own school.
From very humble beginnings, including no furniture, gas, electricity or water in their school/home, Notre Dame de Sion in Kansas City flourished and grew. It began with eight students, two of whom were boarding students. They were taught by the Montessori Method, in which students learn concepts from working with materials and objects rather than from direct instruction. The tactile learning also develops other skills such as fine motor skills.
The sisters soon saw the need for larger quarters and over the next year moved twice. In 1913, the Charles F. Morse mansion at 36th and Warwick became the school. The Sisters purchased the home in 1914 and by the end of that year, 30 students, both day and boarding, had enrolled.
Parents had appreciated the education their children received in the kindergarten and asked the Sisters to continue teaching. A grade level was added each year until the first high school class graduated in 1923. That same year Notre Dame de Sion School received accreditation from the University of Missouri.
By 1920, the school had moved again, this time to the Kirk Armour mansion at Armour Blvd. and Warwick. The home served as classrooms and living quarters for the boarding students, and a large garage became the convent.
Five years later, the school population had grown to the point where a permanent location was necessary. The Sisters acquired a 5-acre site at 38th and Locust, and the school’s construction began. When it was completed, there were classrooms, a library, athletic facilities, meeting areas and a swimming pool. On the grounds was a natural spring discovered during the days of the Santa Fe Trail, which passed the school on the front.
The cornerstone was laid in 1929, and the school building has been in continuous operation since. It served as both grade and high school until the high school relocated to 106th and Wornall Road in 1962.
In 1967, the school opened a Montessori preschool/kindergarten. Today there are four Montessori preschool classes, three 5-day and one 3-day. Then in 1968, the Sisters invited lay people to serve on the Board of Directors, taking the school to a new level.
Today, the grade school encompasses pre-K through 8th grade, with 245 students enrolled.
The renovations to some of the classrooms allow peer learning with five or six desks set in a circle, and in at least one classroom, the sit down desks rise so students can stand up while learning. In another, the desks and chairs are one piece, set on wheels so that students can easily move from one part of the classroom to another for projects and group learning. White board paint on the walls, allows teachers and students to write on the walls with special markers and erase it easily. STEAM, science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics, form one of the curriculum’s nuclei.
The school is considered holy ground. There is a diverse population under a Catholic umbrella. Students and teachers come from many faith traditions: Catholic, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, even some non-religious. This inclusivity has been upheld for 105 years, Mary Kenney said.
One of the kindergarten rooms was where the sisters took afternoon tea. There are two chapels, one where Masses are celebrated monthly and prayer services held weekly, coordinated by classes; and a very small, chapel nook containing a few benches where students can be mentored or spend a few minutes in quiet meditation. Remember the Sound of Music? In the late 1940s, the Von Trapp Family visited Kansas City and performed in the large chapel. Both chapels contain treasured pieces of the school’s past.
The grotto, which has been restored and cleaned, is home to a statue of Our Lady of Sion, water plants and a school of goldfish. The school garden, which has become part of the curriculum, also provides fresh flowers for the school and fresh vegetables for the students and several wild rabbits. Kenney said the students grow cantaloupe, watermelon, tomatoes and potatoes, sweet potatoes, peppers and kale in the garden’s 26 raised beds. There is a small orchard with apple and pear trees.
The Sisters of Sion no longer own or administer the schools. Since 1990, when the Sisters sold the school to a lay Board of Trustees of dedicated parents, alumni and benefactors, with an affiliation agreement in place with the Sisters of Sion and signed by the Bishop for the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. Then Mission of the Congregation of Notre Dame de Sion remain deeply rooted in the with the schools along with an affiliation agreement with the diocese guidelines for Catholic schools.
Both Broderick and Kenney described the students, teachers and staff as a family. And the school building feels like a home, not an institution. Almost wish I was a child again!