By MARNIE McALLISTER
Record Assistant Editor
The Sisters of Loretto honored their founders, planned for the future, renewed their vows and took action to aid immigrants during a five-day bicentennial celebration held April 22-26 in the Archdiocese of Louisville.
Among the jubilee highlights was a special liturgy and group photo on the community’s Foundation Day, April 25, at the motherhouse in Nerinx, Ky. About 300 sisters and lay associates, known as co-members, gathered at the motherhouse — from their homes and ministries around the United States and abroad — to honor three women who laid the foundation of their ministry in 1812.
“Here we are ready to begin another century,” said Sister Cathy Mueller during the homily. “We look to the last 200 years and we are grateful for those who have gone before us. We
stand on the shoulders of great faithful women and men who saw need and responded.”
Mary Rhodes, Christina Stuart and Ann Havern — members of Catholic pioneer families that migrated from Maryland to Kentucky — started the community by teaching children who weren’t being educated on the Kentucky frontier, including the children of Mary Rhodes’ brother.
Sister Mueller, president of the Sisters of Loretto, said the foundresses saw an opportunity to “do something different with their lives.”
“And here we are today,” she told the sisters and co-members gathered for the liturgy. “They moved together into a small cabin for support, friendship and mission. Then, they worked with Father (Charles) Nerinx to become a religious congregation. They began with three. Two months later we were six.
“Their courage, concern and energy, nourished by the Gospel and communal love are with us as a lasting endowment of hope,” she said. “They did not plan for 200 years … and who could have imagined what has happened since 1812?”
Today, the Sisters of Loretto have an international reach. Three sisters recently established a school in Pakistan. There are are 215 vowed sisters and 214 co-members who touch the lives of people in 31 states and 11 countries.
The sisters’ ministry has changed over the years — adapted to the needs of the day, Sister Mueller said. The focus on education has always remained at the core of Loretto life — though it takes a variety of forms now.
Sisters serve in pastoral ministry, health and social services, peace and justice projects, retreat and spirituality centers, Catholic Worker houses, United Nations non-governmental organizations, interfaith initiatives and environmental advocacy.
Sister Maureen Fiedler has taken the teaching charism to uncharted territory. She is the host of the public radio show Interfaith Voices dedicated to promoting religious understanding. It began after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. More than 60 public radio stations around the United States air the show, though it’s not carried here in the Archdiocese of Louisville.
“We live in the United States today in the most religiously diverse nation on earth,” Sister Fiedler noted during an interview after the morning liturgy April 25. “If we’re going to promote understanding, we have to know about one another’s faith traditions.
“It’s both education in the finest Loretto tradition and it’s (a ministry of) justice and peace,” she said.
Sister Fiedler, who lives near Washington, D.C., became a sister of Loretto 28 years ago, after tranferring from a community in New York State. She has been a religious for 50 years.
She noted that the roots of Loretto seem very small, tucked away in a remote part of Kentucky. But they are strong enough to support far reaching branches of ministry.
“I think the roots of the tree are planted very deeply in the soil of Kentucky,” she said.
Most staff offices are located in Denver and St. Louis now. But Sister Fiedler and others say the motherhouse feels like home. The community’s 215 vowed sisters and 214 lay co-members still gather periodically for community-wide celebrations in Nerinx.
It’s a place many sisters want to come when they retire, said Sister Mueller. It has an infirmary, a working farm, a retreat center, a newly expanded Heritage Center museum, and a collection of small cabins known as Cedars of Peace that are open to visitors seeking a quiet retreat.
The foundresses started their ministry about 11 miles from the present site — across a field from St. Charles Church in St. Mary, Ky., which celebrated its 225th anniversary last fall.
The settlement — a small collection of log cabins — became known as Little Loretto. Father Nernix, a priest from Belgium and one of the few serving in the Kentucky frontier in those days, built a cabin in Little Loretto, too. Part of it now stands on the motherhouse grounds in Nerinx, Ky.
The community moved from Little Loretto to its current site in Nerinx in 1824. They flourished there, building an academy and educating generations of young women.
But they didn’t stay put, either. Their expansion began less than a dozen years after their founding, just before the move to Nerinx.
In 1823, a dozen sisters expanded their teaching ministry to Missouri. And as the frontier expanded, so did Loretto. In 1847, sisters moved into Kansas and in 1852 they moved into New Mexico, traveling along the Santa Fe trail in a wagon train. Denver and El Paso came next.
As they moved West, the sisters also staffed schools and operated Loretto High School in the Archdiocese of Louisville.
A century after their founding, the Sisters of Loretto went to China where they served until they were expelled in 1952.
Dr. Annie Stevens, a sister and professor who knows Loretto history well, said during an interview April 25 that one sister, who was native to China, stayed behind and the community believed that she was dead until the 1970s. Sister Isabel Hhuang survived in hiding and finally visited Loretto in the 1990s where she renewed her vows.
Sister Mary Luke Tobin, who led the Sisters of Loretto in the early 1960s, was one of 15 women selected to be an auditor of the Second Vatican Council, which ushered in significant changes for women religious.
Vatican II also brought new ministries for the sisters who responded to a call to serve in South and Central America.
They continue today to work for justice for immigrants through pastoral care, social work and education. The sisters erected a billboard in Louisville recently to call for immigration reform. Located at 330 E. Breckinridge St., It reads, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” But stranger is crossed out and replaced with the word “immigrant.”
Sister Lupe Arciniega, who was educated by the Sisters in El Paso, has spent much of her 57 years as a sister working with immigrants. And she was on hand April 26 to dedicate the new billboards, aimed at educating the public about immigrants and the Gospel call to welcome them.
She was drawn to life as a Loretto Sister as a child, she said during an April 25 interview. The sisters educated her and showed her a compelling way of life.
“They’re joyful in being together,” she said of the sisters. As a child, she noticed “how they love one another. I wanted to be a part of that.”
The source of this joy and love, she said, springs from their mission.
“I come to bring goodness to the poor,” she explained. “That’s what gets me going everyday.”
Click here for a gallery of images from the Sisters’ foundation day celebration.