Loretto alumnae celebrate history of education, justice

When a nun died on a boat in 1852, a deputy sheriff in Independence turned back a party of the Sisters of Loretto from bringing her body through town for burial.

Matilda Mills had died of cholera as the religious order was passing by on the Missouri River on its way west.

The other sisters knew cholera was highly contagious, but still, it didn’t seem right not to allow a proper burial. So later that night, they made an end run around town and buried Matilda under a veil of darkness.

Her grave in a cemetery on Noland Road represents the first permanent presence of the Sisters of Loretto in the area.

It probably should have served notice, too, that this bunch doesn’t take guff from anyone.

At a series of events that ran through the weekend and wraps up today, teachers, students and their families gathered to celebrate a school that for more than a century sent thousands of graduates out into the world to fight for social justice.

“We weren’t just taught history, we were taught to make history,” Beth Berkshire, part of Loretto’s last graduating class in 1984 and now a professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said Sunday at a reunion picnic.

“It was the Loretto sixth sense: Keep going. This was a place for people who would not give up on the world.”

Kris Schaeffer, a 1964 alumna, came in from San Francisco, where she recently helped fight off a huge condominium development that would have uprooted longtime residents of an established neighborhood.

“I have such great memories of this place,” said Schaeffer, who taught at Loretto for a couple of years in the 1970s. “It’s so sad that there is no more school.”

The weekend celebration was called the 200th anniversary because of Loretto’s arrival on the Kentucky frontier in 1812. The order dedicated its mission primarily to the education of girls and young women from elementary school to college.

The first Kansas City school, St. Patrick’s, opened in 1889 at Eighth and Cherry. By the turn of the century, Loretto had changed to a boarding academy for girls, first at Sacred Heart at 27th and Summit, then in an old family home on Broadway and finally to a brick building on 39th Street.

“Everything changed in the 1960s,” said Eleanor Craig, a longtime teacher.

The order, sometimes to the frustration of the families it served, went full bore into social activism. Sisters and students marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in the South. They worked in inner cities, protested the war in Vietnam and demonstrated for an end to nuclear arms.

Craig said the school was always about helping students find a direction.

Later, the school moved to a new building in the 12400 block of Wornall Road. It closed in 1984. The building, where the Loretto bunch gathered Sunday, is now the home of Lutheran High School of Kansas City.

Craig knows it’s sad for the former students not to have a school to come back to.

“It’s like if you don’t have a building, you’re invisible,” Craig said. “People say to me all the time, ‘Where are the sisters?’

“I told them this weekend, look around. You have each other. The work goes on. When you teach your children, what we taught here gets passed on.”

The 200th celebration concludes today with a Mass from 4 to 5 p.m. at Guardian Angels, 1310 Westport Road, and a 6 to 9 p.m. reception at the Loretto, 39th and Roanoke, mostly for graduates, faculty and those directly connected with the “Old Loretto.”