Fires, earthquakes, an epidemic—Sisters prevail, growing a program well known for academic excellence and Christian formation
With a fire raging up the street toward Holy Rosary Academy, Mother M. Lucretia (Kearns), CSC—who had a special devotion to St. Michael—fervently prayed as she placed a small statue of the archangel at the school’s entrance. She implored, “If you allow Holy Rosary to be burned, I will pitch you out on the street. But if you save us, I will buy you the finest statue to be had.” The fire came closer and closer, and then…
…it crossed the street.
The inferno swept through the buildings opposite the school. It then inexplicably crossed the street again. Holy Rosary was spared, standing tall and stately among the ruin and rubble. True to her word, Mother Lucretia soon secured a beautiful statue of St. Michael that became a revered presence at the school’s entrance.
This account, and others noted here, comes to us from a book in the Congregation’s archives titled “Our Western Province, Vol. V.” Published in the early 1940s, it includes a chapter on Holy Rosary Academy that chronicles this mid-1890s fire, as well as other conflagrations, earthquakes and an epidemic. But it also highlights the superb reputation the academy earned and the great esteem the community held for the sisters, who nurtured and grew the school from its founding in 1886 through to 1977. The sisters served under the auspices of Holy Rosary Parish, which in 2020 is celebrating its 150th anniversary. Although the sisters left Woodland 43 years ago, the nine decades spent there were filled with challenges and opportunities they could never have anticipated when they arrived toward the end of the 19th century.
Iron horse pioneers
On July 26, 1886, Mother Lucretia gathered eight Holy Cross sisters and departed the motherhouse in Notre Dame, Indiana. Boarding a train, these nine “iron horse pioneers,” as westward-bound travelers were called, headed into the unknown. Their destination: Holy Rosary Academy in Woodland, California. The parish pastor had requested sisters to staff the new private academy, and the Sisters of the Holy Cross responded.
No record exists of the sisters’ thoughts along their journey, nor of the unfamiliar locale they encountered when arriving in this northern California town. But there is no doubt they immediately set to work to grow the school and guide its students. They must have felt great pride just three years later when four young women comprised the first graduating class. The ceremony was “an elaborate affair” held in the local opera house. The four graduates “were daintily dressed in white silk gowns with high necks and long sleeves.”
This momentous occasion was followed a few years later by another, altogether different, event.
In the early hours of April 18, 1892, the day after Easter services, the sisters awoke to their house swaying “to and fro, east and west, north and south, like a vessel lashed by angry waves,” according to Mother Lucretia:
“’The Sisters flew to the chapel in their night-clothing. The sanctuary lamp was swaying full length back and forth, and the beautifully adorned Easter altar was denuded of its ornaments, which lay in confusion about the sanctuary. The Crucifix had been thrown as far as the altar railing and broken flowers, vases, candles, and candle-sticks lay about the floor in a confused mass. We said the fifteen mysteries of the Rosary and the Way of the Cross before we had courage to leave the chapel.’”
An equally severe earthquake jolted the community again two days later. Mother Lucretia referenced the Congregation’s superior, Mother M. Angela (Eliza Gillespie), CSC, when she reported, “Mother Angela’s telegram with the assurance of the prayers of all at the Mother House, gave both Sisters and children renewed hope and courage.”
Growing the ministry
With the turn of the century, the sisters brought music instruction into the lives of their students and others in the community. In time, their music program became highly regarded across the region and beyond the state. Much of its success is attributed to Sister M. Agnesia (Kelly), CSC. “Our Western Province” notes:
“[Sister Agnesia’s] name will ever be held in benediction in Woodland, where she spent more than half her life as head of the department of music, sending out hundreds of young girls whose lives she enriched, not only by her teaching, but also by her beautiful life so completely consecrated to religion and duty.”
In the coming decades, Holy Rosary Academy experienced even greater, equally phenomenal growth. Expanding from being solely a boarding facility, Holy Rosary began admitting boys, becoming known as Holy Rosary School. The parish authorized new buildings and annexes to accommodate the expanding student body and the introduction of additional educational and spiritual programs. Three major construction projects between 1904 and 1930 created space for a music hall, library, dormitories, a spacious auditorium, dining hall with seating for 100, social hall and art studio, as well as extra classrooms and private rooms for boarding students.
Still, challenges remained. On September 8, 1934, fire once more advanced upon the school:
“The conflagration started in a large brewery across the street, and as a strong north wind was blowing directly toward the school, there was every reason to fear that the building could not escape; but it was saved by prayer and confidence in God. News-boys in the streets of Sacramento and San Francisco cried, ‘Woodland Academy saved by Miracle!’
“All the secular papers credited the miraculous preservation of the building to the prayers of the Sisters and pupils. A Protestant business man who watched at a distance the progress of the ravaging fire, said it appeared as though a protecting Hand reached out, warding off the flames and diverting the wind from its natural course. The Sisters were calm and unafraid, confident that Our Lady of the Rosary would protect the school.”
At the golden jubilee, returning alumnae included Pauline Lord, “now a famous actress of New York City,” as well as one of the first graduates of 1889, Mrs. Rose Mossbacher Han, who recalled “sweet memories of her happy school days,” crediting the beloved sisters who taught and guided her.
Even a pandemic was averted. In 1918, when the Spanish flu raged across the country and the world, Holy Rosary was one of the few residences in Woodland that did not lose a single occupant. The boarding school continued classes, with day school and outside music pupils dismissed for a time as a precaution. A few children became ill but recovered under the devoted care of two local doctors.
Despite the pandemic, the sisters turned their attention that year to a major renovation and relocation of the school’s chapel. Upon its completion, Bishop Thomas Grace blessed it on the feast of the Patronage of St. Joseph. The chapel was dedicated to St. Joseph, “who signally assisted in its construction and decoration as well as with the finances.”
Generous benefactors covered the project’s $6,000 cost. Beautiful new features included an arched and frescoed ceiling, stained glass windows, Stations of the Cross, sanctuary lamp, marble holy water font and statues bearing donors’ names. Most donors were residents of Woodland “who have, on many occasions, shown their good will by gifts and financial help.”
A joyous jubilee
Such joy there was on May 3, 1936, when the school celebrated its golden jubilee. The Sisters of the Holy Cross had shepherded Holy Rosary for 50 years through times good and bad. In addition to the religious and educational ceremonies that marked the occasion, Bishop Armstrong proposed a civic celebration “as a proper way to show the Sisters the esteem in which the town and its citizens held them.” Returning alumnae included Pauline Lord, “now a famous actress of New York City,” as well as one of the first graduates of 1889, Mrs. Rose Mossbacher Han. Mrs. Han recalled “sweet memories of her happy school days,” crediting the beloved sisters who taught and guided her.
A third fire that threatened the school, in the fall of 1952, unfortunately burned the structure to the ground, though the school was eventually rebuilt.
Holy Cross sisters’ legacy
Over the course of their 91 years in Woodland, approximately 60 Sisters of the Holy Cross served at Holy Rosary School. Among them were Sister M. Madeleva (Wolff), CSC, who taught at the school while earning her doctorate at the University of California. Holy Rosary School also nurtured the vocations of dozens of Sisters of the Holy Cross. And interestingly, at least nine sisters attended Holy Rosary School prior to joining the Congregation: Sisters M. Agnes Jean (Patricia Anne Vieno), M. Aloysius (Eunice Cohely), M. Ann Catherine (Patricia Helen Mulligan), M. Ann Keating (Mary Elizabeth Ann Keating), M. Bethania (Elizabeth Whitehouse), Esther Marie (Esther Whitehouse), Maria Adorata (Grace Wright), Mary Eliza (Elizabeth Garno Martin) and Mary Mulligan (Mary Theresa Mulligan).
Eight Holy Cross sisters who taught at the school now reside at Saint Mary’s, Notre Dame, Indiana; Saint Catherine by the Sea, Ventura, California; or Terre Haute, Indiana: Sisters Alma Mary (Anderson), Doreen Marie Vignassa, Eileen Dewsnup, Gloria Valdovinos, Lillian Sullivan, M. Luella (Van Dorn), Mary Mulligan and Miriam Grace (Erramouspe).
Sister Lillian Sullivan, CSC, remembers the friendliness of the town. “It seemed everyone knew everyone else. I always felt welcome wherever I went, riding my bicycle freely around town and in the countryside. I have such fond memories of Woodland.”
“The friendships, the nurturance of community within Holy Rosary School has continued throughout these last years,” noted Sister Eileen Dewsnup, CSC. “Always, these memories bring much thanksgiving and ongoing prayer for present day Holy Rosary school, parish and community.”
Sister Mary Mulligan, CSC, who both attended (1944-1947) and taught at Holy Rosary (1976-1977), said, “I received an excellent education and was privileged [as a senior] to teach third grade half-day when the teacher suddenly quit. One of the other seniors taught the other half-day. Sister M. Paracleta [Eula Cosgrove], CSC, whom we loved, was the art teacher.”
“She could bring a great deal out of a person to make them better teachers. I am one example of that. She understood the students and she understood the faculty. I learned a huge amount from her, not just teaching.”Sister Alma Mary, professor of art and graphic design, Indiana State University
Memories of a revered principal
Sister Alma Mary Anderson, CSC, fondly remembered, as did many others, the legacy of Sister M. Francis James (Ann Voelker), CSC, principal of Holy Rosary before her death in 1972 at the young age of 36.
“She could bring a great deal out of a person to make them better teachers,” Sister Alma Mary said. “I am one example of that. She understood the students and she understood the faculty. I learned a huge amount from her, not just teaching.” Currently, Sister Alma Mary is a professor of art and graphic design at Indiana State University, Terre Haute, Indiana.
Sister Eileen, who taught at the school from 1968 to 1974, was appointed to complete the school year as principal after Sister Francis James’ untimely death and to assist in the search for a lay administrator. She remembers her teaching years as pivotal to learning the many facets of educational approaches to the formation of the whole person.
“Sister Francis James was the most significant instrument in this. Nothing was beyond her creative mind. Not much was impossible if care, dialogue and some forthright negotiation could take place. ‘Well,’ she’d say, ‘let’s do it.’ Her witness to the education of the whole person was well appreciated and expressed in the deep loss the entire school, parish and civic community felt in the following period of grief.”
In 1977, due to declining numbers in the Congregation, the sisters departed Woodland. But they also left behind a legacy of academic excellence and Christian formation that touched the lives of hundreds of students. Today, the Sisters of the Holy Cross carry on educational ministries on four continents, continuing to bring educational excellence in the Holy Cross tradition to new generations of youth.
Holy Rosary may no longer be ablaze with the fervor of the Holy Cross sisters, but the Congregation’s mission continues in lighting the fire of the imagination in young minds and hearts around the world. Please consider donating to help extend this educational mission of outreach. There are more stories still to be told.