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Sisters of Loretto at the Foot of the Cross

Founded in Kentucky, in 1812, by Father Charles Nerinckx

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Loretto, SISTERS OF, AT THE FOOT OF THE CROSS, the Sisters of Loretto at the Foot of the Cross were founded in Kentucky, in 1812, by Father Charles Nerinckx, who first called them “The Little Society of the Friends of Mary at the Foot of the Cross of Jesus”. The Holy See approved the institute under the title: The Sisters of Loretto at the Foot of the Cross. The special work to which the Sisters devote their lives is Christian education. Amid the rude conditions of life in Kentucky during the first decade of the nineteenth century, the pioneer missionaries, Fathers Stephen Theodore Badin and Charles Nerinckx, realized the necessity for schools conducted by trained Christian teachers. It was practically impossible for them to bring such teachers from Europe or elsewhere, but the possibility remained of finding the means to establish such schools without going abroad. The catholic colonists in Kentucky were in general good people, some of them eminently virtuous. Strong practical faith and unwavering attachment to Catholic truth marked their earnest religious character and sustained their solicitude for the Christian training of their children. Noting these traits Fathers Badin and Nerinckx cherished hopes of establishing a religious community. In 1812 their hopes were realized when Loretto sprang into existence with no other provision for its subsistence than an abiding trust in Divine Providence.

Miss Mary Rhodes, educated in Baltimore, opened a school in a log cabin near St. Charles’s church. Two companions, Miss Christina Stewart and Miss Anne Havern, soon joined her. Father Nerinckx, seeing a ray of promise for realizing the hope he had cherished so long, encouraged their desire to dedicate themselves to the service of God and instructed them in the duties of the religious life. With the approval of the Right Rev. Benedict Joseph Flaget, first Bishop of Bardstown, he clothed them with the religious habit on April 25, 1812. This date is, therefore, commemorated by the sisters as their foundation day. Two other young ladies, Miss Anne Rhodes and Miss Sarah Havern, then asked for the habit and received it on June 29, 1812. The little society then organized and Miss Anne Rhodes was chosen the first superioress. They were soon joined by Miss Nellie Morgan who had been a successful teacher. She received the habit on August 12, 1812. The health of Mother Anne soon failed; she pronounced her vows on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, and died on December 11, 1812. Mary Rhodes was then chosen superioress. Mother Mary and her four companions pronounced their vows of perpetual poverty, chastity, and obedience on August 15, 1813. Postulants continued to seek admission and Father Nerinckx watched over and encouraged the first efforts of the aspirants and directed them till his death (August 12, 1824) in the practices of the spiritual life and in their efforts to acquire greater proficiency as teachers. The life of the sisters edified all who knew them. Their austere rule breathed the purest spirit of Christian perfection, and though some of the regulations were found by experience to be too rigid for observance in this country and were subsequently omitted, the spirit has been fully preserved and still animates the society. After the death of Father Nerinckx, Bishop Flaget moved Loretto from the place of its first foundation to St. Stephen’s, so called from the fact that Father Badin had built a small log church near his residence and dedicated it to St. Stephen. The convent and church erected here by the sisters, dedicated in 1826 and destroyed by fire in 1858, have been replaced by more spacious buildings, and here the mother house of the Sisters of Loretto at the Foot of the Cross still remains.

In the transfer of Loretto to this new location, nothing was lost of the primitive spirit of the society. The growth of the society rendered branch establishments necessary during the first decade of its existence. The first was founded in 1816, near Holy Mary’s church; the second, in 1818, at the place where the great Cistercian Abbey of Gethsemani now stands; three others in Kentucky and one in Missouri were founded before the death of Father Nerinckx. His zeal animated the sisters and led them westward to labor and establish schools among the Indians and pioneers, where no provision had been made for their support; these early foundations were for education what the early missionary churches were for religion. Incorporated by Act of the Legislature of Kentucky, in 1829, under the title, “The Loretto Literary and Benevolent Institution”, the Sisters of Loretto at the Foot of the Cross have maintained their academic courses abreast with current progress in education, and when the episcopate advocated the establishment of parochial schools, they were among the first to support the movement and devote themselves to the work. In1816 Father Nerinckx submitted their rules and constitutions to Pius VII for approval. The Holy Father, well pleased with its spirit, placed the new institute under the protection of the Sacred Congregation of the Propaganda and granted it many favors. Again in 1851, Right Rev. Martin John Spalding, afterwards Archbishop of Baltimore, presented the constitutions to the Holy See for the encouragement and blessing of Pius IX. At the beginning of the twentieth century the Sisters of Loretto at the Foot of the Cross turned again to the Holy See for guidance. In 1904 Mother Praxedes Carty presented the constitutions which Pius X fully and finally confirmed in 1907.

The general government of the society is vested in the mother general and her councillors residing at the mother house. Each establishment is presided over by a local superior and her two assistants. The society is composed of but one class of sisters, no distinctions being made in the manner of training to the practice of religious virtues, all are subject to the same regulations of the religious state. The novitiate lasts one full year, at the completion of which the sisters pronounce the three simple vows which they renew annually, until at the expiration of the fifth year, they make perpetual vows. The young professed sisters pass an examination and those having proper qualifications for teachers are placed in the normal training school of the society. Whatever educational advantages a sister may have had before entering the society, she is required to apply herself to the special line of studies chosen by her superiors and to follow a course of pedagogical training in the normal school. In 1909 the Sisters of Loretto at the Foot of the Cross conducted schools in the Archdioceses of St. Louis and Santa Fe, and in the Dioceses of Louisville, Covington, Columbus, Cleveland, Mobile, Bellville, Kansas City, Lincoln, Denver, Tucson, and Dallas.


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