Loretto’s day of remembering

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Earlier this year, my friend Sister Patricia J. Manion of Loretto Community, a teaching order of the Catholic Church, alerted me to an upcoming event, Sept. 26.

On that date, a celebration will be held at Santa Fe marking the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Sisters of Loretto and also the 160th anniversary of their arrival in New Mexico’s capital.

The first American order of sisters dedicated to teaching was established in 1812, in Kentucky by a transplanted Belgian priest, Charles Nerinx.

Bishop Jean B. Lamy, soon after his arrival in Santa Fe, saw the urgent need for schools, almost wholly lacking in the territory at that time. Thus, when he had to go east in 1852 to attend a church conference, he seized the opportunity to recruit six Sisters of Loretto to return with him to his far-flung diocese and open their academies and convents.

The journey back to New Mexico began tragically. As the bishop’s party was ascending the Missouri River by steamboat, dreaded cholera broke out.

The mother superior of the six nuns, Matilda Mills, was stricken and died within a few hours. Another of the sisters became ill, but survived, although she was unable to continue on.

One of the remaining quartet, Sister Magdalen Haden, became the new Mother Superior and would nobly serve the Lorentines in New Mexico until her retirement in 1881.

The trip over the Santa Fe Trail with the bishop and sisters riding in their buggies was not without hardships. The travelers suffered through a mighty storm on the open plains and narrowly escaped from 400 Natives who surrounded their caravan.

The tiny band of tired, homesick sisters finally rolled into Santa Fe on Sept. 26, 1852, a Sunday, to receive a thunderous welcome. They passed under triumphal arches, heard church bells clanging furiously, and struggled with their buggies to get through the adoring crowds.

The first duty of these newcomers was to learn Spanish, but that task was scarcely under way before they were holding classes for both day students and boarders.

From that modest beginning, the Sisters of Loretto afterward developed a campus for their Lady of Light Academy, facing the old Santa Fe Trail that officially ended just one block north on the plaza.

So far as I am aware, little Marian Sloan (Russell) who attended in those earliest years, was the only student who recorded in some detail her recollections of the experience.

As she stated: “Mother Magdalen, I believe, was the most loved sister I have ever known. We all adored her and vied for her favor.” Marian was a Protestant child.

Once on a walk to the plaza, she met Col. Kit Carson, then the Indian agent for the Utes and Jicarilla Apaches. “I was tongue tied in the presence of a stranger,” the little girl related.

“Seeing my books and uniform, he said, ‘Them nuns do a heap sight of good in the God-forsaken country.’”

As New Mexico became less God-forsaken, additional ranks of teachers were summoned from Kentucky to staff new Loretto schools in such places as Toas, Mora, Las Vegas, Albuquerque, Bernalillo, Socorro and Las Cruces. Their contribution to education in the territory was enormous.

In Santa Fe, the sisters benefitted by the construction of their own Loretto Chapel in the Gothic Revival style. Begun in 1874 and completed in 1878, while Santa Fe Trail wagons still rolled past, it remains famous for its beautiful rose window and “miraculous” spiral staircase.

After the mid 20th century, changing times forced the closing of all the Loretto schools in New Mexico. The one in Santa Fe shut down in 1966 and the property was sold for development.

Fortunately, the chapel was saved. The Inn of Loretto now occupies the campus site.