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Sisters of Loretto at 200: Celebrating frontier past, mission of peace and justice

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 24, 2012 - As patrons enter the Loretto-Hilton Performing Arts Center for a performance, some may wonder about its name. Was Loretto the first name of theater donor Conrad Hilton’s wife? His daughter? A lady in black?

In fact, the 1966 thrust-stage theatre is a legacy of the Sisters of Loretto Standing at the Foot of the Cross. In the mid-'60s the Loretto sisters were indeed ladies in black — black habits and veils. However, some say a red dress is the reason the theater, a community resource today, was built.

At the time, the Loretto Sisters wanted the theater and music majors at Webster College (now a university) to learn on the same stage used by a professional theater company. The company’s directors, designers and actors would teach the students in classes, too.

Along with Sister Jacqueline Grennan, Sister Francetta Barberis, then the college president, called on a former student of hers who’d done very well in the hotel business — Conrad Hilton — to cajole him into underwriting the theater.

“They went to see Conrad Hilton in their black habits,” said Peter Sargent, dean of Webster’s Leigh Gerdine College of Fine Arts. “When he invited them to a party later, Jacqueline asked what his favorite color was.”

Grennan arrived at the party in a “Hilton red” dress, and he pledged to pay the theater now named for him and the sisters. They sent the news back to the theater majors.

“Word came that he’d said yes, just as the Greek chorus was warming up before the (college production) matinee of ‘Mourning Becomes Electra,’” Webster College alumna Mary Alice Dwyer-Dobbin, said. “Marsha Mason was Electra and Barbara Blong was Clytemnestra. It was very hard for all of us, after that, to stay somber and sober for the tragedy.”

A year later, after running Webster for more than a half century — the school was founded as Loretto College in 1915 — the Sisters of Loretto handed the college to a lay-run board. Grennan later married, and as Jacqueline Wexler was president of Hunter College in New York. She died in January.

“That red dress is a symbol of the creative, forward-thinking Loretto sisters,” said Sargent, a Webster faculty member for 46 years, said. “In my mind, the Loretto-Hilton became the go-to place; it set our community standards for excellence locally and internationally. Still does.”

Born in a log cabin

Two hundred years ago, three Catholic women from Maryland teaching on the Kentucky frontier lamented the lack of education for girls. Mary Rhodes, Christina Stuart and Ann Havern started a religious community — Sisters of Loretto Standing at the Foot of the Cross — and a school for poor girls in a log cabin near the crossroads now called Loretto.

While most orders of American nuns were founded in Europe, the Sisters of Loretto were born in this country. They take the second part of their name “at the foot of the cross” as a guide that they should take God’s words to everyday life and stand with those suffering, said Sister Donna Day, the Loretto community’s national vice president.

The Sisters of Loretto were just 11 years old when Catholic bishops began calling them for help. In 1823, the Belgian-born Bishop Louis DuBourg, whose diocese covered most of the Louisiana Purchase, invited the nuns to Our Lady of the Barrons in Perry County, Mo. Twelve sisters answered DuBourg’s call.

Today, 38 Loretto sisters live in the region. Their most visible presence is at Nerinx Hall, a private high school with 625 girls in Webster Groves, founded in 1924. Its staff includes three Sisters of Loretto who work with lay faculty to help students commit to the four Loretto goals: faith, community service, justice and respect for others, said Sister Barbara Roche, Nerinx principal for 26 years. 

By the mid-20th century, the visibility of the Sisters of Loretto’ was high. They taught in a dozen parish schools here. In 1963, Loretto’s own schools, including Webster College and Loretto Heights College in Denver, served 41,535 students. Today the sisters run three girls' high schools with a total enrollment of 1,700 girls, in Webster Groves, Denver and El Paso, Tex. They have projects in 31 states and have sisters in Uganda, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Guatemala and their newest mission in Pakistan.  

Today, there are 215 Loretto sisters nationally. Three-quarters are retired and need help in preparing meals and housing, said Day.

“Our median age is 79,” Day said. The oldest member is 102.

The main increase in the ranks of American Catholic sisters today is in cloistered orders in which nuns remain at prayer in their convents for life. The number of Loretto sisters — like most American Catholic congregations — has diminished since the 1970s. This country now has 55,944 Catholic nuns, fewer than a third of the 179,954 serving in 1965, according to Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.

“It’s a complex issue why today few women (are) entering all but the cloistered orders,” Day said. “One reason is that today women have so many other ways to serve the church.”

Day says she finds many young Catholic women committed to service projects that can improve the world. Many also are ardent about their relationship to God. “I think women today are seeking a deeper spirituality,” she said.

Educating the family — and village

While the three Loretto founders in Kentucky began as teachers of poor women, within a half century they had founded schools for the deaf and mute, Indians, Latinos and others on the margins of society. After the end of the Civil War, they reached out to teach African Americans to read.

“Early on, we had orphanages and a school for Indians in Kansas,” said Sister Mary Ann McGivern of Project Cope, which resettles former prisoners.

Nuns’ guidance did not end with graduation. When you educate a boy, you educate a man, but when you educate a girl, you educate a whole family, wrote Françoise d'Aubigné, the Marquise de Maintenon wrote.

Loretto sisters — whether in the Kentucky wilderness, rural Perryville, New Mexico and Colorado — saw that they had to educate whole families, sometimes whole villages. They did much more than teach girls to follow the Gospels, read and spark intellectual curiosity. Sisters became lifetime advisors, acting as sounding boards and counselors for parents and former students. They shared community knowledge as they organized aid during mine disasters, floods, cholera, epidemics of yellow fever and influenza, crop failures and wars.

In their ancestors’ footfalls

Not unlike those Kentucky women who ventured to Santa Fe to teach the new Americans in Spanish, Sister Concha de La Cruz, a native of El Pasao, today works with St. Louis Latinos on job, educational and medical needs.

Frontier sisters who helped struggling farmers in time of drought, and flood, would understand Sister Nancy Wittwer’s reverential respect for the land.

“It’s all very spiritual,” Wittwer said. “Until we recognize the Earth as sacred, as the primary revelation of the divine, people won’t really understand and do much about the environment.”

Wittwer founded the Loretto Earth Network, which encourages all members and their high school students to be energy efficient by using solar and wind power, public transportation, hybrid cars, buying locally grown food, repairing and recycling. She also founded the Inter-Community Coalition of Women Religious, a group of Catholic nuns who help their own religious communities, students and the region go green.

Eager for a global voice in peace and social justice, the Loretto community is a credentialed United Nations non-governmental organization, NGO. Sister Sally Dunn is its full-time United Nations representative.

McGivern, the prison ministry expert, like Loretto’s early Kentucky members, also is concerned about workers’ safety in mines. Her order owns shares of the Canadian Goldcorp Inc. so McGivern can push it to improve conditions in its Guatemala gold mine.

Last week, she was in Jefferson City explaining to legislators that mandatory sentences for the poor found guilty of using crack cocaine should not be years longer than the sentences of more affluent drug abusers who used powdered cocaine.

In 1970 the Loretto Sisters invited lay Catholic men and women to share Loretto’s mission as “co-members.” Today 19 St. Louisans are among the 213 co-members nationally. They meet twice a year here and every couple years nationally. They offer intellectual research, physical and financial support to nuns’ social justice and peace missions, said Martha Alderson, the lay coordinator. These co-members don’t take vows.

Ribbons of honor

Sunday, more than 150 Loretto sisters and co-members converged at their motherhouse and retirement center in Loretto, Ken., for a four-day bicentennial jubilee. A central decoration at the event is a log cabin quilt, with the image of a Kentucky log cabin that Belgian missionary priest Charles Nerinckx provided for the order's founders as the sisters' first convent and school.

“The bi-centennial celebration is about friendship, too,” said Sister Marian McAvoy, a Webster Groves resident who was national president from 1978 to ‘86.

Weeks ago, McAvoy asked each participant to honor sisters unable to travel or deceased members by writing down their name on a colorful ribbon. Sunday they began attaching the ribbons to the quilt. Over the past two centuries, 3,133 American women have been sisters of Loretto. There may be more ribbons than quilt. 

One ribbon will honor the late Sister Mary Luke Tobin, who began her teaching career in 1929 at St. Pius Parish Grade School on South Grand and was Nerinx Hall principal 1948-52.

The ribbon notes that Tobin more famously served as one of just 15 women “auditors”, and one of just three American women, at the Second Vatican Council in 1964 and 1965. While serving on two council commissions, she helped write two key documents: “The Church in the Modern World” and “On the Laity.” Seminarians still study both as formative church teaching — and Pope Benedict XVI, a young theologian at the council, still refers to them.

Since Wednesday, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which Tobin led a half century ago, has been in the news. American Cardinal William Levada, prefect leader of the Vatican Congregation of the Faith, made public a study of the leadership conference, giving it a poor doctrinal assessment.

Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo led an investigation, which criticized the organization’s leaders’ dissent on the church’s teaching on sexuality, ordination of women and “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.” Levada, a former San Francisco archbishop, assigned Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain to oversee a reform of the group over the next five years.

The letter is a scorching topic among Loretto sisters. Like 80 percent of Catholic religious orders in the U.S., their president is an LCWR member.

“I feel deep dismay, real sorrow about this when there is such suffering in the world,” McGivern said. “I am a faithful daughter of the church. I’ve devoted my life to it, and so have these women. Loretto’s history of faithfulness to the Gospel is what we are celebrating.”

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.

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