The Loretto Community Marks 200 Years


"We work for justice & act for peace because the Gospel urges us."



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From left, Loretto Sister Mary Frances Lottes, Loretto volunteer and longtime supporter Dr. Jean Chapman, and Loretto Sister Mary Swain, along with Loretto Co-member Peg Jacobs in background, take part in the mid-2000s to protest the School of the Americas. Lottes and Swain grew up in St. Louis and graduated from Nerinx Hall. photo courtesy of the Loretto Archives (click for larger version)
April 13, 2012
Webster Groves is home to the Sisters of Loretto and two of the institutions they established: Webster University and Nerinx Hall High School. On April 25, the Sisters will celebrate the 200th anniversary of their founding. The Sisters' interest in educational opportunities and social justice is reflected in their long history, starting with their Kentucky roots.

In 1804, a 43-year-old Belgian priest fled the conflicts of continental Europe and found his way to the Kentucky frontier of a young, growing United States. Father Charles Nerinckx rode as an itinerant priest, serving a pioneer community 200 miles wide. He built churches and congregations, but his attempts at forming a group of religious sisters floundered.

Then, in 1812, he met Mary Rhodes, Christina Stuart, and Anne Havern. These young women were already teachers and shared Father Nerinckx's concerns about the education of children in the sparsely settled Kentucky wilderness. They asked him to create a 'rule' for them, a sort of constitution for Holy Orders, and he was delighted to do so, using just one piece of paper.

On April 25, 1812, these three women became sisters of The Little Society of the Friends of Mary Under the Cross of Jesus, later shortened to Sisters of Loretto.

In June of that year, three more women took vows and joined the Sisters. The women started with two log cabins, one to live in and one to teach in, but they quickly expanded. They took in poor orphans and boarding students, who paid in half cash and half produce, grew crops and did spinning, weaving and sewing. Life for the Sisters was hard, but it must have held some appeal because in four years the number of Sisters quadrupled.

As the fledgling United States spread westward, so too did the demand for education and the Sisters were there to meet that need. In 1823, they journeyed by land and boat to Perry County, Mo., to found their first school outside of Kentucky. Father Nerinckx travelled on to St. Louis, where he met with some of the Native Americans to discuss forming a school for their daughters. Sadly, that school was never to be, as Father Nerinckx died of a fever in Ste. Genevieve, Mo., while returning to Kentucky. The plucky Sisters forged on, however, and by the turn of the century, the Sisters of Loretto had founded 99 schools throughout the United States -- 32 of them in Missouri.

Sister Annie Stevens, adjunct professor of religious studies at Webster University, clarifies:

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Loretto Sisters don habits worn by Loretto throughout the years. The Sisters began choosing not to wear a habit beginning in 1967. Standing, from left, are Loretto Sisters Ann Monica Pierce (1953 version, with veil change), Andrew Marie Haninger (novice habit, with white veil and cape), and Magdalen Herman (1818 version, no special dress; the Sisters wore whatever they had). Seated, from left, Loretto Sisters Anne Greenslade (homespun habits and veils of 1813, dyed from tree bark), Noella Thompson (grey habit worn in China; Loretto established a mission in China beginning in 1923); Paul Mary Grennan (1909 version, with a white starch lining added to the veil, which was left unpinned under the chin, and embroidered hearts were removed) and Alice Jean Vade Bon Coeur (white habit worn by nurses and dietary personnel). photo courtesy of the Loretto Archives (click for larger version)
"By 1847, the Sisters of the Sacred Heart with St. Philippine Duchesne moved from St. Ferdinand's in Florissant out to St. Charles. The Sisters of Loretto filled the gap left by their departure. And from the 1860s on, Loretto Sisters were staffing many St. Louis-area parish schools," she said.

According to history of the Sisters of Loretto, in 1898, Mother Praxedes Carty, an intelligent Irishwoman with a keen business mind, became mother superior of the Sisters of Loretto, and she had big goals for the Sisters in Webster Groves. The Sisters purchased the Benjamin Webster house and began holding classes for female day students and boarders, from the elementary grades through college age. Unfortunately, the Webster home burned down in 1905. Mother Praxedes was undeterred, however. She believed that young women should have access to higher education. To that end she opened Loretto College in 1916, where Benjamin Webster's house once stood, where Webster University's Webster Hall is now located on Lockwood Avenue.

Loretto College was re-named Webster College in 1924, and re-named once again as Webster University in 1983. The Sisters continued to educate high school age women in the former Lockwood home, graduating the first class from Nerinx Hall in 1925. Nerinx eventually outgrew that residence, and began construction on the red brick school building in 1953. Their most recent additions, a theater and student commons, were completed in 2007.

Through their educational institutions, the Sisters of Loretto have continued to pioneer. In the 1940s, for example, they sought for their schools "an integrated educational model for African-American students, promoting racial understanding," according to Sr. Barbara Roche, president of Nerinx Hall. The Supreme Court did not mandate desegregation of public schools until 1954.

"A commitment to arts and drama are characteristic of the Sisters of Loretto, and (the Sisters) have contributed to the rich arts culture of Webster Groves," said Sister Roche.

The Loretto-Hilton Theater on Webster University's campus is a fine case in point. Sisters of Loretto spearheaded its development, and when it opened in May of 1966, it was the first performing arts facility in the United States designed to house both a professional acting company and an undergraduate theater program.

The innovations continue through today, with a current emphasis on sustainability and "green" practices, as well as forging new relationships with congregations in Ghana and Pakistan.

Darby Slattery is a junior at Nerinx Hall and newly-elected Student Leadership Council president.

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Sister Mary Roger Brennan, SL, instructs students in the science lab at then Webster College (now University) in the early 1960s. This photo ran in 1962 Webster College yearbook. The Loretto Sisters established Webster College in 1915. Sister Mary Roger taught at Webster from 1959 to 1967. photo courtesy of the Loretto Archives (click for larger version)
"During SHOUT Week (Students Helping OUT), we had a fundraising competition and collected $26,000 for the Loretto school in Pakistan," Slattery said.

Slattery has travelled to the Loretto Motherhouse in Kentucky and was deeply affected by her experiences there.

"Lorettos work for justice and respect -- Nerinx lives it by helping people out, service to the community, being good people," Slattery said.

She believes that the Sisters are "a part of Webster Groves that not everyone knows about, but they are an important part of the city's history."

The Sisters, she said, "have given me the power to do things I never could have imagined myself doing."

Nerinx Hall will celebrate the 200th Jubilee of the Sisters of Loretto on April 20. Many of the Sisters with travel to Kentucky for a Homecoming week following that. Sr. Annie Stevens will install a display about the history of the Sisters of Loretto in the Webster University Library on April 20, as well.

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May 6 Concert At Nerinx Marks Founding Of Sisters Of Loretto

Join Nerinx Hall on Sunday, May 6, for a special concert in celebration of the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Sisters of Loretto.

Choir performances by Sisters of Loretto/Loretto Community members and Nerinx Hall's Honors and Select Choruses, along with musical selections by Nerinx Hall's orchestra and jazz band, will highlight the Loretto musical tradition.

The concert performance begins at 2 p.m. and will be repeated at 5 p.m. in the Heagney Theatre on the Nerinx Hall campus. Between the concerts, the Loretto Celebration of the Arts continues with an art show featuring the work of Sisters Jeanne Dueber, Gabriel Mary Hoare, Roberta Hudlow and Carina Vetter. The artists' reception will be held in the Knaup Lobby of the Heagney Theatre from 3:30 to 5 p.m.

For more information, contact Lori Hunt at 968-1505, ext. 125, or lhunt@nerinxhs.org.

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