August 23, 2022 | Local News, Your Stories
Fr. Stephen Van Lal Than

Michael Wilson, Sr. (left) and Sam Willett. COURTESY OF CHRISTOPHER GRANEY

Here on this Spot, “The Sisters” Taught Science

BY CHRISTOPHER GRANEY, THE VATICAN OBSERVATORY

Stories of science and the Catholic Church appear in unexpected places.  On a trip to Cave-in-Rock in Illinois (USA), I learned about St. Vincent’s Academy and Blessed Martin School from the past—and about John Paul II School from the present.  These schools tell a story of education in the USA that is both interesting and difficult.

Cave-in-Rock is on the north bank of the Ohio River; these three schools are or were in Union County in western Kentucky, on the south bank.  Union County has a significant Catholic population—six Catholic churches in a county whose population is only about 15,000.  I can’t recall how Union County’s Catholic history first came to my attention, but once I started doing a little research, I found that its Catholic roots go deep.  St. Agnes Church in Uniontown dates to 1859; St. Ambrose Church in Henshaw dates to 1829; Sacred Heart near Waverly dates to 1812.  At Sacred Heart in 1820 the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth founded Union County’s Academy of St. Vincent.*

Union County is in the Diocese of Owensboro, Kentucky.  It is in one of several large areas in Kentucky where many Catholics of English descent settled after the USA’s independence from the British Empire.  The north bank of the Ohio was home to the indigenous Shawnee people, but the Kentucky territory was sparsely populated.  The settlers mostly came from the state of Maryland.  These Catholic settlers are why, when Pope Pius VII in 1808 sub-divided the USA’s original single diocese of Baltimore, he formed the new dioceses of Boston, New York, Philadelphia—and Bardstown, Kentucky.  The Diocese of Bardstown later became the Archdiocese of Louisville, from which Pope Pius XI spun off the Diocese of Owensboro in 1937.

Thus when the Owensboro diocese received its first bishop, Francis R. Cotton, in 1938, St. Vincent’s Academy was well more than a century old.  Blessed Martin, by contrast, did not yet exist.  Yet by 1968, both schools—the one that was over a century old, and the one that did not yet exist—would be gone.  It is, as I said, an interesting and difficult story.

Central to this story are the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth (SCNs).  Their religious community was not even a decade old when they established St. Vincent.  Bardstown bishop Benedict Joseph Flaget wanted a religious community of education and service.  In November of 1812, Teresa Carrico, upon hearing Fr. John Baptist David preach at her home, came forward, asking for religious direction and community.  She and Elizabeth Wells started a community on land just south of Bardstown in December of 1812.  They were joined in January 1813 by Catherine Spalding.  She was nineteen at the time, but later that year the others would choose her to be the leader of the community.

The community grew, and quickly began to establish outposts away from Bardstown.  Srs. Angela Spink, Frances Gardiner and Cecily O’Brien travelled to Union County where they established St. Vincent’s next to Sacred Heart.  Spink toiled in the fields and woods and worked the harvest so the others had the time and money to engage in the business of forming the school.  The school, which was a boarding school for young women, grew quickly, for it was the only school in the area to teach more than reading, writing, and arithmetic.

Indeed, the SCNs taught astronomy.  I have not found specifics for St. Vincent’s, but Anna Blanche McGill’s book, The Sisters of Charity of Nazareth Kentucky, states that the SCN’s taught astronomy at their Nazareth Academy near Bardstown—

The earliest printed copy of Nazareth’s curriculum, in the Catholic Almanac for 1833-35, gives this account of the branches taught: reading, writing, arithmetic, English grammar, geography (with the use of globes), history, rhetoric, botany, natural philosophy including the principles of astronomy, optics, chemistry, etc.

—and—

In the first senior class four periods a week are given to astronomy, the study of which is facilitated by a good telescope and other apparatus, and the “wide and starry sky” above Nazareth’s thousand acres.

McGill states that “a glance at the early plan of studies at Nazareth and her branch schools” reveals astronomy in the curriculum, and that the Nazareth Academy’s curriculum and methods “served as a model” for all the educational work of the SCNs.  Therefore it is reasonable to suppose that they taught some astronomy at St. Vincent’s, under the wide, dark and starry skies of Union County.

In time other schools opened in the county:  St. Agnes in Uniontown in 1870; St. Peter in Waverly in 1910; St. Ann in Morganfield in 1912; Blessed Martin in Waverly in 1944.  This all sounds great.  But history is interesting and difficult, not just great.  That includes Catholic history.

In Owensboro, this can be seen in the history of its Cathedral parish itself.  Those pioneering Catholics were not always so keen to accept others—even fellow Catholics.  Before Owensboro’s St. Stephen Cathedral was a cathedral, it was St. Stephen Church, founded in 1839.  For years it was the only Catholic church in Owensboro.  But then, according to “Clio: ‘St. Joseph Catholic Church’”—

In the mid-19th century, Owensboro saw a swell in the German Catholic population as more immigrants began migrating south from the large German diaspora in southern Indiana. Germans had to attend St. Stephen Church, the only Catholic church in town at the time, but were restricted to back pews of the church because of cultural clashes.

In 1871, a German parish, the parish of St. Joseph, was formed and a church built.  Then in 1878, the church was burned to the ground, with arson suspected.  The Germans rebuilt in brick.  Owensboro at that time was part of the Diocese of Louisville, and in 1855 anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant riots had broken out there, with the violence coming right to the steps of the Louisville Cathedral.  Despite this, Catholics in Owensboro could not maintain basic Christian charity and unity, even with fellow Catholics.

In Kentucky, some of those fellow Catholics have always been African Americans.  People of African ancestry were a part of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth from the beginning—held in slavery by the SCNs.  McGill reports that when the land on which Spalding, Carrico and Wells originally settled turned out to have an encumbrance on its deed placed in the will of its former owner, the community had to move:

In March, 1822, three Sisters with four assistants set out to prepare the new home. With the help of two orphans (who later joined the community) and two negroes belonging to the Sisters, crops were put in and a vegetable garden was started.  Fancy lingers over that simple rural scene, directed by the three religious—the first tilling and planting in the fields round which Nazareth’s thousand acres were later to flourish.

But things were not always so peaceful.  McGill in Sisters includes the recollections of a student at St. Vincent’s in the 1850’s—

Uncle Harry, the best hand on the farm…. the faithful old colored man on the place, [who] cut the poles {for May Day procession}…. and Aunt Agnes, his wife, the cook, whose dainties endeared her to the girls.  Aunt Agnes was eventually sold and pathetically borne away from her family—an incident of heart-breaking significance to Sisters and girls, who, led by Sister Isabella at the end of the sad scene of parting, passed into the church to pray for poor Agnes.

They might also have prayed that God have mercy on them all, and especially on those involved in shipping Agnes off, who would all answer to God for such a crime against Christian charity and unity.  Despite such things, African Americans in Kentucky persevered in their faith.  Blessed Martin School, which included a high school, was established not far from St. Vincent’s, in the 1940s, when segregated education was the law in Kentucky.

A friend of mine, who will turn eighty years of age in a few weeks, attended a different Catholic school for African Americans, in Louisville, run by the SCNs.  Legally-enforced segregation ended while he was a student, and he was among the first people of African descent to attend St. Xavier High School and Bellarmine University in Louisville, and the University of Notre Dame.  He has many positive things to say about the SCNs in particular and his Catholic education experience in general.  When he was an adult, one of the SCNs he knew (he became a Catholic school teacher himself) once told him that since the SCNs were not allowed to have integrated schools, they made a point of sending “their best” to their African-American schools—and his experience supported that statement.  Nevertheless, today his grade school is closed.  The building is long gone.

In Union County, Blessed Martin closed after barely two decades.  St. Vincent closed in 1967, after nearly a century and a half.  St. Peter closed in 1973.  St. Agnes closed in 1989, thus ending the “119 years the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth taught in Uniontown”.  St. Ann shut its doors in 2015.

My wife and I travelled around Union County, looking at the churches.  We found the location of the Academy of St. Vincent.  Almost nothing remains there today—just a historical marker, and the top of a tower of the Academy, now serving as a sort of gazebo.

Blessed Martin’s building still stands, and we found it only by happenstance.  While looking at an online map to figure out the location of St. Peter in Waverly, I noticed that just outside that small town was a street called “Blessed Martin Road”.  Guessing that the name was not mere coincidence, we drove out the road.  There, across from a large Catholic cemetery, was a simple concrete block building.  It had large windows like a school might have.  It looked to be of the right age.  I thought that building had to be Blessed Martin School.

But I wanted to know for sure.  As we had driven out Blessed Martin Road we had passed some houses with people out working in their yards, most of whom were African-American.  So, it seemed the best way to know if we had found the school was to go ask someone who lived on the road.

We pulled up in front of a house.  I hopped out.  Two gentlemen there probably thought I was selling something when they first saw me coming.  They probably thought I was out of my mind when they first heard me talking (“writes for the Vatican’s observatory—uh-huh, yeah…”).  But in no time I was deep in a lengthy and fascinating conversation with Mr. Sam Willett and Mr. Michael Wilson, Sr.  It turns out one of them was a graduate of Blessed Martin.  The other is trying to keep the Blessed Martin building standing.

Mr. Willett, who turned 84 this year, was a graduate of Blessed Martin School.  He attended there from grade 1 through grade 12.  He noted that he had attended a public school for first grade, but the Sisters said he should restart first grade in order not to miss out on any catechesis.  That catechesis apparently took root, since he also noted that he attends Mass daily at St. Ann.  Mr. Willett said that pretty much everyone on Blessed Martin Road was Catholic.  His parents are buried in St. Peter’s cemetery across the road.

Of course I asked Mr. Willett about science education at Blessed Martin.  It turns out science was his least favorite subject!  He said that the Sister who taught science taught him how to operate the school’s film projector, and then had him run all the science films for the younger students.  In this way she got him some science exposure.

Mr. Wilson, who also goes to St. Ann, is trying to keep the old Blessed Martin building standing.  In the 1970s his parents moved in to a house next door to the old school.  Eventually they bought the school property.  His mother, Sarah Wilson, still lives there.  At some point in the past the old school served as an event space, and was even home to a barber shop.  Now, however, it is unused, and has roof problems.  Mrs. Wilson and Mr. Wilson showed my wife and me around the inside.  They would like to see it become a community asset again, and a place that celebrates the community’s history—but a new roof will be really expensive.  That roof is a goal they are working toward.

According to Mr. Willett, only half the old school still stands.  There was a grade school, and a high school, separated by a short space of ground.  The grade school building still stands; the high school was torn down at some point—well before the Wilsons bought their home.

Blessed Martin School was a very simple building.  Heating was by stove.  The toilets were outhouses (which still stand).  Water was from a well.  Such things were not just the case at Blessed Martin—St. Ann School in Morganfield had outhouses from when it was built in 1912 until an addition with bathrooms was put on in 1962.

The school situation in the area around St. Vincent’s and Blessed Martin started to collapse in the 1960s.  Blessed Martin closed.  St. Vincent closed.  The school at St. Peter moved to St. Vincent’s building, then closed in 1973.

Schools staffed by the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, and by other orders, once had a huge presence in Kentucky.  Then that presence likewise collapsed.  When St. Peter’s closed I was just starting to attend school, at another Catholic grade school, in Owensboro.  The vast majority of my teachers were laypersons.  In my high school, Owensboro Catholic High School, there were only a handful of Sisters.

The reasons for this collapse are beyond the scope of either this blog or my expertise.  Perhaps it was changes brought on by Vatican II.  Perhaps it was the great “Baby Boom” aging out of the schools.  Perhaps those who joined prosperous orders with magnificent campuses in the first half of the twentieth century had different priorities than those who toiled in the woods and lived in log cabins a century earlier.

Regardless, it is not surprising that the disappearance of religious orders from the classrooms and the closings of Catholic schools went hand-in-hand.  When a religious order teaches at a school, wealth is transferred from that order and its donors to the local community—the order and its donors help “fund” the school through labor.  The SCNs have been described as a veritable “empire of charity”—an empire of women when women rarely held the reins of anything.  The seat of that empire would be their great campus at Nazareth, Kentucky—already quite a place when McGill featured a photograph of it in her book (the campus still exists).  When that empire left a school, the local communities had to find and pay people to teach.  If the communities did not have the money and the people, they might have tried to keep things going for a while, consolidating, shrinking, and retrenching, but eventually the schools closed.  Some were torn down.  There are lots of closed Catholic schools in the USA, and lots of places where schools used to stand.

St. Ann, the last remaining Catholic school in Union County, built on the idea of a school being staffed by Sisters, closed in 2015.  It has been torn down.  But here the story of schools in Union County takes a positive turn.  Across the street from the old St. Ann school, a new school opened in August 2015.  This was John Paul II School—not a school to be staffed by Sisters, not a school for a particular church.  A local news story from the time reported:

When the project began to build a new Catholic school, it was decided it would also get a new name. Union County has six Catholic churches and the school serves all of them.

This school ended a half-century-long pattern of closing and consolidating schools in the area.  Bravo!  I was happy to discover the John Paul II Catholic School on our trip to Cave-in-Rock—a discovery which led to this post.  May the school prosper.  May it learn from the successes of the Catholic schools of the past, and from their failures.  And may there not one day be a historical marker that says “on this spot once was a school”.

*Historical information in this post is from:

Christopher Graney is a 1984 graduate of Owensboro Catholic High School in Owensboro, Ky., and an adjunct scholar with the Vatican Observatory.

This article was originally posted on the website of the Vatican Observatory at https://www.vaticanobservatory.org/sacred-space-astronomy/here-on-this-spot-the-sisters-taught-science/. It has been reprinted here with permission.

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