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Borderlands: Sisters of Loretto Have Long Tradition in Southwest 19 (2000)

A unique resource of faculty edited college student articles on the history and culture of the El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico regions.

Sisters of Loretto Have Long Tradition in Southwest

Article first published in Vol. 19, 2000.

By Bernadette Saenz and Victoria Valdez

From England to the state of Maryland, then to Kentucky and on to the Southwest. The group of religious women who became known as the Sisters of Loretto and established schools all over the Southwest came from hardy English stock. Finding religious persecution surfacing in America, 25 Maryland Catholic families joined together to seek a new beginning in the Kentucky wilderness in 1785.


Image caption: The chapel at Loretto Academy is an El Paso landmark. Photo courtesy of Danny Martinez

 Charles Nerinckx, a Flemish priest also fleeing persecution, came in 1805 to Hardin's Creek in central Kentucky to begin his mission among the scattered Catholic families. Known as the "Apostle of Kentucky," he ministered to the people's spiritual needs and built simple churches. Father Nerinckx hoped for nuns to teach the children, but his early efforts to establish a sisterhood failed.

In 1811, Mary Rhodes came from Maryland to visit relatives and saw the lack of educational opportunities for pioneer children. Settling in Kentucky, Rhodes began teaching her own relatives basic skills and catechism. Soon neighbors asked her to teach their children, and as the number of pupils increased, Rhodes welcomed the assistance of Christina Stuart and Ann Havern.

These three pioneer women, with Father Nerinckx as their spiritual guide, formed the Little Society of the Friends of Mary Under the Cross of Jesus in 1812. Their log cabin school was designated Little Loretto after the shrine in Italy which honors the home of Jesus, Mary and Joseph at Nazareth. The order dedicated their work to "The glory of God, the honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary ... the propagation of our holy religion ... by instructing youth." Soon the nuns would be known as Sisters of Loretto and they would move West, continuing to teach.

After the Mexican War, the United States gained possession of the vast Southwest with a mostly Catholic population. In 1852, Bishop Jean Baptiste Lamy of Santa Fe requested the help of the Sisters of Loretto to work with the Spanish-speaking children of Santa Fe. Six sisters traveled by river boat to Independence, Missouri, and then followed the dangerous Missouri Trail 900 miles overland to Santa Fe. In Indian country, they came across others of their order who had been teaching Osage children in Kansas since 1847. One sister died of cholera on a river boat and another of exhaustion and terror after an Indian attack on their wagons.

In November 1852, they opened their first school, the Academy of Our Lady of the Light, an all-girls school in Santa Fe, which flourished until the late 1960s. Moving south to Las Cruces, the Sisters of Loretto founded Loretto Academy in 1870, another all-girls school offering classes in reading, spelling, algebra, modern and ancient geography, lace work and piano. This school played an integral part in the educational growth of the Mesilla Valley until it closed in June 1944.

The Sisters of Loretto began their educational work in Texas in 1879, when four sisters from Loretto Academy in Las Cruces went to San Elizario. Their convent, an adobe building that contained several rooms around a placita, also housed the first parochial school in San Elizario, St. Joseph's Academy.

St. Joseph's had dirt floors and glazed muslin windowpanes. Wooden floors eventually replaced the dirt ones, and other buildings were added. The Sisters had a beautiful flower garden in front of the building and in the rear tended a vegetable garden and a lush orchard of plum, peach, pear, apple and almond trees.

In Anna Minogue's 1912 history of the Loretto nuns, Sister Mary Bernard Doyle gives an excellent picture of conditions existing in San Elizario when she went there in 1884:

We were met in El Paso by two sisters in a canvassed-top spring wagon. The driver looked like he had never known soap, water, or a comb. Finally we reached San Elizario after dark the same evening. When daylight dawned upon us, really my impressions were not very encouraging, as it seemed we had reached God's forsaken part of the world. ... the church had no pews, a mud floor, the highways were full of ruts and holes.

A unique experience for the sisters at San Elizario involved helping to build the church. Sister Doyle says that after mass, the whole congregation marched about two miles carrying adobes on a "paraquela," a board with handles on each side, to the construction site.

Regardless of its appearance to Easterners, the reputation of the school soon attracted pupils from the valley, El Paso and the interior of Mexico. Classes were ungraded, and the first objective was to create in the children a desire for learning. The Sisters of Loretto kept the school in San Elizario until the summer of 1892.

The sisters saw that the center of growth would soon switch from the San Elizario area to El Paso since the Southern Pacific Railroad bypassed their Lower Valley site. Bishop Thomas F. Brennan gave the Sisters of Loretto permission to move St. Joseph's Academy to Sacred Heart School built by the Jesuit priest Father Pinto in South El Paso. In 1892, the new St. Joseph's Academy opened and soon enrolled over 200 pupils. It was the first of many schools the Sisters of Loretto would staff in El Paso.

In the 20th century, the Sisters of Loretto built the largest and best known of their schools in what is now central El Paso: Loretto Academy. The school opened on September 11, 1923, with 143 students and eight teachers. At the time, the site for the school was outside the city. The first all-girls school in El Paso, the academy would teach not only academic subjects but leadership skills and the means to succeed in everyday life. The school attracted young women from the surrounding area and Mexico.

Mother Praxedes Carty, Superior General of the Sisters of Loretto, had been named local Superior in 1922. She directed the building of Loretto, securing a loan of $80,000 to finish the school. The building of the first three units took 14 years, but Mother Praxedes built without deadlines, basing her trust in the motto of the founders of the Sisters of Loretto: "Deus providebit," or "God will provide." She died in 1933 still directing the construction.

Other buildings grew up around the first ones. At one time, the convent housed nearly 100 sisters who staffed the Academy and various parochial schools throughout El Paso. Boarding students from first through 12th grade lived on the third floor of the high school building. The boarding school closed in 1975 and became a middle school. In the 1990s, Loretto continued to accept girls from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade and boys through fifth grade. Recently, the convent has been converted to a retreat center for community organizations.

In 1998, Loretto Academy celebrated its 75th anniversary with numerous events commemorating the work of the Lorrentines in El Paso. The imposing campus in Austin Terrace stands as a symbol of the early desire in three young religious women to teach children. Today, the Sisters of Loretto help minister to gangs, teach catechism, tutor the young, teach adult education and engage in many other educational activities in El Paso.

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