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After 190 years, Loretto sisters still stake out new frontiers

Englewood, Colo.

It was 1852. They stepped off the boat in Independence, Mo., and stepped into a Dearborn coach -- dainty looking, in-town buggy that was predecessor to the huskier, necessity-bred Conestoga wagon -- and into history.

They were four young women from Nerinx, Ky. The youngest was 28, the oldest 41.

This quartet of Sisters of Loretto at the Foot of the Cross -- a community co-founded in 1812 by three young women and a refugee Belgian priest, Fr. Charles Nerinckx, when Kentucky was the frontier -- knew what they were about.

The foursome was headed in the high-wheeled, leather-curtained, mule-drawn Surrey-like vehicle on a one-thousand-mile, two-month-long journey to Santa Fe, in New Mexico territory. The next frontier.

It could be perilous -- they had already lost their leader to cholera. A companion, also stricken with cholera, stayed behind in Missouri.

The nuns knew what they would be doing -- teaching Spanish-speaking children at the invitation of the later famed Archbishop John B. Lamy of Santa Fe (celebrated in Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop). What the four didn’t know, nor did their sisters back in Kentucky, was what would sprout from the seeds they were about to sow.

They didn’t know that a century-and-a-half later, little girls and boys in Loretto’s St. Mary’s Academy lower school in Denver would reconstruct their journey on a cardboard map. Opened in 1864, before Denver was a diocese or Colorado a state, the academy was the work of three Santa Fe Loretto sisters who took a stagecoach to the next frontier, Colorado.

The academy’s first graduate, Jessie Forshee, in 1875 received the first high school diploma issued west of the Mississippi. In a historic reach, Loretto Sr. Helen Sanders, who at 93 still attends gatherings and listens to taped programs in the Kentucky motherhouse, knew Forshee, who also became a Loretto.

And last year, Sanders -- St. Mary’s refers to her as the academy’s own “Queen Mum” -- marked her own 75th anniversary of graduation from the school by presenting the Forshee gold medal to an achieving student.

At Nerinx, one of Sanders’ nonagenarian companions is the renowned Loretto Sr. Mary Luke Tobin, also 93. Tobin preceded Sanders as president (1958-70) and was the only American Catholic woman invited as an observer to the Second Vatican Council, 1962-65.

It was Sanders, a farsighted Loretto president (1970-78) at a time when there were Lorettines in 20 states, who encouraged the sisters of the post-Vatican II church to reach beyond their traditional teaching roles into new fields.

Work born in prayer

The prescient Sanders made this possible when she dipped deeply into Loretto reserves to bring the sisters into the national Social Security system and then began a retirement fund that turned into a charitable trust. The combination for retired sisters of a Social Security check and income from the retirement trust, said current Loretto president Sr. Mary Catherine Rabbitt (the name is Irish), “freed a lot of younger sisters such as myself to do meaningful work” rather than be tied to jobs purely as income producers to support the retirees. Rabbitt became a crusading lawyer on health care and corporate responsibility issues.

These aren’t secular do-gooders. This is work born in a prayer life that keeps before it Jesus’ example in the Word and the eucharistic celebration.

In that spirit, Tobin and Sanders re-emphasized what all Loretto women instinctively knew -- that the sisters were about working with women at every level. They educated women at private schools and in innovative inner-city programs; defended them on health care access and poverty issues; walked with them in homeless shelters and public housing projects; marveled with them during environmental and spiritual encounters.

Sanders consolidated the order’s finances to provide an underpinning for the future. And that future is now: The median age of the 340-plus sisters is 77; there are six sisters under 50, and three dozen under 60. Two sisters made final vows in 2000. The newest Loretto is Sr. Carol Kaiman, a registered nurse who has just finished her canonical year. Sisters transferring in from other orders have included “Faith Matters” radio talk show host Sr. Maureen Fiedler, and New Ways Ministry cofounder Jeannine Gramick.

As the community celebrates its 190th birthday, in Denver alone the spiritual sister-descendents of the Nerinx foundation are still staking out new frontiers -- though now these are socio-economic frontiers.

On those frontiers -- visited by NCR during a two-day Denver odyssey -- the Lorettines help marginalized women to organize, co-sponsor with Jesuits the dual-language neighborhood Catholic school, with a Dominican sister develop organic gardening plots and environmental programs and trips for the homeless. Sisters work with the homeless, and in a little house on West Hillside Place, one sister lives in the home the sisters have helped create for eight developmentally disabled women.

Colorado to Kentucky

Nationwide these days the Lorettines have four main centers.

In addition to Denver, in Nerinx, Ky., there’s the motherhouse, with a farm, retreat center, hermitages in woods, and sisters doing rural ministry and running a daycare center in Marion County, where the sisters are a major employer. (The Knobs Haven retreat center and Cedars of Peace hermitages are offered free to those released from jail terms for protesting the School of the Americas.)

The St. Louis Lorettines have established Pillar Place. It is subsidized low income housing for 40 families in a former school, with an extended-hours daycare program, job training and counseling. There’s Nerinx Hall, a four-year women’s high school, and Loretto involvement in the new inner-city Marian Middle School for girls. El Paso’s Loretto programs include a retreat center, and Loretto Academy, which offers a co-ed kindergarten through 8th grade program and a high school for young women. In El Paso, too, the Lorettines have joined with the Daughters of Charity in operating Nazareth Hall Infirmary for the elderly.

The Lorettines have informal links with the Holy Family Sisters in Guatemala and the Daughters of the Blessed Trinity in Ghana. In Africa Loretto Sr. Marie Ego directs the Loretto Africa Project, and works as a counselor with indigenous religious communities and with an AIDS programs. Loretto Sr. Pauline Albin travels widely to teach as assistant director of the catechetical office for the Sunyani, Ghana, diocese.

More than a dozen U.S.-based Loretto sisters have flown to Africa to provide short-term courses in English and computer science for the Daughters of the Blessed Trinity. Loretto Sr. Mary Ken Lewis and Fr. Martin Lally, a Denver priest and Loretto co-member, have given team retreats and theology programs to groups of Ghanian religious.

In Guatemala, Loretto sisters have accompanied native sisters in isolated areas doing human rights, catechetical work and education.

Whether these bonds to the Holy Family Sisters and the Daughters of the Blessed Trinity will lead to a more formal connection is undetermined, Rabbitt said. As with their own future, the Loretto sisters have definite plans in some areas, and a great deal of flexibility in their approach to other potential developments.

One step at a time

With this in mind, President Rabbitt and three of her six-member executive team sat around a table in their rented administrative offices in Englewood, a Denver suburb, and looked to their future. Sr. Susan Swain holds down a second job as lower school principal. Sr. Eva Marie Salas, who has worked in Bolivia and Southern Colorado (where she was principal of a public school), is the primary contact with the Holy Family Sisters. Sr. Denise Ann Clifford, the vice president, handles development, and, like other executives, serves on various Loretto boards.

The team works on its current six-year plan Imagine 2006 one step at a time. Rabbitt, whose term ends in 2006, said her main priorities are the preferential option for the poor, ecological issues and the promotion of human rights.

With their bicentenary only a decade away, how would they feel, they were asked, if there were a 250th anniversary that did not include professed sisters?

“There’ll always be some,” replied Salas, who thinks the Loretto tradition will continue in modified form. “We began with three,” she said, implying that though the numbers dwindle there’ll always be a core group.

What Loretto is open to, said Rabbitt -- and the community has always been innovative -- is a range of possibilities and fresh associations guided by “the signs of the times.” One example of that, she said, is a forthcoming meeting with a dozen young women who have asked to strengthen their ties to Loretto. They’ve already served as Loretto Volunteers or know the community in other ways.

“We’ll be listening to how they envision ways of connecting -- outside of the formal and traditional methods of the past.” And if that means, for example, short-term commitments, such as temporary vows, the community would be open to working out new patterns of association.

Just as the Conestoga wagon succeeded the Dearborn when Americans headed for the frontier, the Sisters of Loretto are ready to adapt to new vehicles to carry on their frontier work.

Arthur Jones is NCR editor at large. His e-mail address is AJones96@aol.com

Lorettos at-a-glance

Founded in Nerinx, Kentucky in 1812, the Sisters of Loretto at the Foot of the Cross (initially the Friends of Mary at the Foot of the Cross) are one of the first three orders of women religious to spring from American soil. The others are St. Elizabeth Seton’s Sisters of Charity (1809) and the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, also founded in Kentucky in 1812.

The three founding sisters, under the guidance of their priestly collaborator, the Belgian-born Fr. Charles Nerinckx, pronounced their vows in 1813.

They were to teach, and their first school was a log cabin. But they were frontier nuns: 1823, Missouri; 1825, Louisiana; 1838, Arkansas; 1847, Kansas; 1852; New Mexico; 1863, Illinois; 1864, Colorado; 1874, Alabama; 1879, Texas; 1897, Toronto, Canada; 1899, Arizona - and on they went.

From a peak of some 1,200 sisters around 1960, there are some 340 today. They have always been in the forefront of exploring the new -- and were quick to examine and adopt the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

Related Web sites


Escuela de Guadalupe

Havern Center

Loretto Community

St. Mary’s Academy

National Catholic Reporter, April 12, 2002