There will no doubt be a lot written and said in the national media about the relationship between the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Those words are left for others to write.
Here in the Archdiocese of Louisville there are two groups of women religious who are celebrating significant histories and contributions to the church and its people in this part of the nation this week.
The Sisters of Loretto are in the midst of celebrating their Bicentennial Year; and the Ursuline Sisters of Mount St. Joseph are celebrating the 100th anniversary of their teaching ministry in Marion County. There is no doubt that both communities have contributed greatly to the development and history of Catholicism in this state, and Catholics throughout the Archdiocese of Louisville should join in offering them our thanks and congratulations.
The role both groups of women religious played — together with all the early leaders of the church — is difficult to overstate. The late Archbishop Thomas C. Kelly wrote about the legacy of our church’s pioneers in the introduction to Father Clyde Crews’ book “The Faithful Image.”
“Together with a marvelously resourceful, witty and kindly group of lay men and women — and early religious — (Bishop Benedict Joseph) Flaget, (Bishop John Baptist) David and their host of fellow workers forged a truly Catholic community,” he wrote. “Work and worship, levity and joy, sorrow and conflict, hope and courage — these were regular fare in their lives.
“All things ultimately made sense to them precisely because, under the guidance of the befriending Spirit, they sought to pattern their lives in the image of Jesus their Lord,” the archbishop wrote.
“Thus they were able to be such full-blooded, deeply human personalities who wove discipline and compassion, comfort and challenge into their lives, while inviting their society to share their vision and values.”
The history of the Sisters of Loretto began in 1812 near what is now Nerinx, Ky., when the first group of women religious — originally called Friends of Mary — dedicated themselves to God and to the education of poor children in the area. From their start hard by Hardin’s Creek, the Loretto community’s commitment to education has spread to 16 states and China, Bolivia, Chile, Peru and Africa.
The first contemplative abbey in the United States — Gethsemani — was built on land earlier held by the Sisters of Loretto, as Father Crews explained in his book. And at the time of the community’s founding, Kentucky was, Father Crews wrote, the relatively new “western star in the American flag” having entered the union just two decades earlier.
In 1884, in Lebanon, Ky., the Sisters of Loretto staffed what was simply called “the colored school,” at a time when bringing education to African American children was not a high priority to many.
The Ursuline Sisters of Mount St. Joseph sprang from the Ursuline Sisters of Louisville on Oct. 12, 1912 — a century after the founding of the Sisters of Loretto. But ask anyone in Marion, Nelson or Washington counties about their impact, and you’ll hear testimony to their teaching prowess and their sacrifice on behalf of the people and communities they served.
In fact, at the end of their centennial celebration this coming weekend in Lebanon, a permanent memorial to the accomplishments of the Ursuline Sisters of Mount St. Joseph will be dedicated on the lawn of the David R. Hourigan Government Office Building in downtown Lebanon. (Next week’s issue of The Record will also include a story about the Sisters of Loretto Bicentennial celebration.)
The history of both these groups of women religious would fill a book — several of them, in fact, have already been authored. But given the limits of this space, let’s conclude these words of praise and congratulation with one final historical anecdote.
In the autumn of 1918, with the United States in the midst of war in Europe, the Spanish influenza reared its head throughout the country, but most significantly in military camps. The gathering of large numbers of men in small areas made it easier for the flu to find new victims.
Camp Taylor in Louisville was the scene of a virulent outbreak, and women religious from all over the archdiocese — and from every religious community within — volunteered to serve as nurses during the health crisis.
The flu epidemic killed more than 800 soldiers at the camp, and the city of Louisville lost more than 900 souls — three times the number of Louisvillians killed in World War I.
But the women religious put themselves at risk in the midst of the sick, to help, to serve, to witness to the power of faith and the grace of God. They’ve been with us for a long time; here’s hoping they are with us for centuries to come.