Holy Cross Sisters to Leave St. Mary School

For the first time since 1869, there will be no Sisters of the Holy Cross at St. Mary School in Alexandria. When Sister Bernadette Sneeringer, C.S.C., and Sister Beniti Scanlon, C.S.C., (pictured at right) leave in early July, a long tradition of service to the parish will end. During the Civil War, St. Mary’s pastor, Father Peter Kroes, S.J., was so impressed with the nursing of the wounded by the Sisters of the Holy Cross at St. Aloysius Hospital in Washington, D.C., that he invited the sisters to Alexandria to open a parish school. Mother M. Angela, superior general of the French order based in South Bend, Ind., approved the request. A few weeks later, six Holy Cross nuns, Sisters M. Ambrose (Corby), M. Leocadia (Louthery), M. Gregory (Barry), M. Bethania (Wilson), M. Jerome (Wilkenson) and M. Boniface (Lauth) arrived. Four of the sisters staffed the private girls’ school, St. Mary’s Academy, while two went to the new parish elementary school. The Academy, at 211 N. Fairfax St., was never officially part of the parish, but for many years the sisters lived at the Academy and down to Royal Street for Mass and school. Not until the 1940s did the parish buy the Lucy Graves house at 623 S. Fairfax to serve as a convent. By Jan. 1, 1870, 20 boys and 20 girls were enrolled in the parish school. The first school building, with outdoor plumbing and heated by pot-bellied stoves, was located at the corner of Royal and Wolfe Streets. In 1885 land at the corner of Royal and Wilkes Streets was purchased for a school for the black children of Alexandria, at that time a segregated Southern city. In September 1885, Sister Ruffina Dunn, C.S.C., opened that school, which, at its peak, had 126 students. By 1896, enrollment had declined, and the sisters were withdrawn from the school. In 1897 the school closed. The sisters entered into all aspects of parish life, visiting parishioners, attending funerals, comforting the sick and taking care of the poor. In the 1920s Sister Constantia Young bought clothes for children in need with money provided by the pastor, Father Lawrence Kelly. The sisters held Sunday School for public and parochial school students and taught catechism at all of the parish missions, including Blessed Sacrament in Alexandria. Young local women entered the Holy Cross order. Eleanor Fannon of Alexandria became Mother Vincentia Fannon and superior general of the order from 1913-1919. Amelia Cilinski, also of Alexandria, joined the order in the 1940s as Sister Camilla and served as a first grade teacher at St. Mary School, until she retired in 1995. Because the Royal Street school was overcrowded, in 1919 a boys’ school, run by the Xaverian Brothers, opened in the 400 block of North Washington Street. During the Depression it was too costly to maintain both schools, so the boys’ school closed in 1934. To make room for the additional students at St. Mary School, a new classroom was built in the Lyceum on Duke Street across from the St. Mary Rectory. In the 1940s, the pastor, then-Father Edward Stephens, had new lighting and plumbing installed in the Royal St. building, but the pot-bellied stoves remained—children took turns sitting near the red-hot stoves. Both Sister Beniti and Sister Bernadette grew up in Washington, D.C., and were taught by Sisters of the Holy Cross. Sister Beniti remembers the sisters at St. Paul’s in Washington as "being very good to the children." Likewise, Sister Bernadette recalls the Holy Cross Sisters at St. Patrick’s Academy in Washington "were very free and open with you and talked with you," especially Sister Lucy, who became a favorite. "My father always said that I would be a sister, but I always said ‘oh, no I’m not,’" she remembers. But after high school, she realized her vocation and went back to Sister Lucy for advice. Sister Beniti was six months ahead of Sister Bernadette in the novitiate and their paths crossed several times, once to serve together at a school in Baltimore where Sister Bernadette recalls "the children were poor, but still wonderful." Sister Beniti first arrived at St. Mary School in 1942. She recalled a pageant presented by the children to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the parish in 1945. When Sister and Peggy DeMarr drove into Washington to pick up the period costumes for the pageant, DeMarr’s car broke down and the two women had to "tote all the costumes back to Alexandria on the bus" so that the show could go on. Because she came to St. Mary before her final vows, Sister Beniti did not yet wear the order’s symbol, a silver heart on which the face of Mary and her broken heart are embossed. Sixth-grader Marian Nolan told her mother, "She doesn’t have a heart." Sister Beniti laughs recalling that after her return from Indiana, where she had professed her final vows in 1943, Nolan ran home to tell her mother, "Now Sister has a heart." A distinctive feature of the habit of the Sisters of the Holy Cross was the beautiful fluted cap. Although many sisters changed to secular dress over the years, Sister Camilla continued to wear the traditional habit until her retirement. "I think our habit looked very lovely," said Sister Bernadette as she explained that one of the sisters had invented a machine for the exacting work of making the fluted headpiece—each cap took an hour. "The only thing that bothered us [about the habit] was the collar, which was made from very heavy material. When we came in the house, the first thing we did was take it off," Sister said. Sister Beniti recalled that during recess, the children played in a roped off section of Royal Street in front of the church and school. One day in the 1940s when fire engines were heard racing from the local firehouse, the boys in the safety patrol "dropped the ropes at the end of the street so the fire engines could pass through." Fortunately, a nun up in the school who saw that the children were still playing in the street rang the school bell furiously to warn them of the approaching danger. A photo of children playing in the street was included in fundraising material for a new school that noted the lack of playground space and asked, "Are any of these little ones your children? They are too precious to be treated like unfortunate dead-end kids." Construction on the new school, under the guidance of Msgr. Edward L. Stephens, began in December 1948 at an estimated cost of $500,000. Moving day was March 1, 1950, and according to historical archives, "On a blustery, piercing cold day and without heat in the [old school] building, the sisters supervised the moving of desks from the old to the new building. Much time and energy were spent in making the classrooms attractive for the opening of school." In 1950 there were 11 nuns and 512 pupils at the new school at 400 Green St., which included 12 classrooms, a library, principal’s office, teachers’ lounge, clinic, cafeteria, and multi-purpose room. Student enrollment jumped to 708 by 1953 and lay teachers were hired for the first time. Construction of a new convent was deemed necessary. When it opened, adjacent to the school, in October 1953, the school’s Mothers’ Club surprised the nuns with a household shower, including a "state-of the-art 1950 sewing machine." In 1962, legal changes mandated that elementary school teachers in Virginia had to have a college degree. Many of the sisters returned to the classroom in the evenings and during the summer. According to parish history, "Sister Ann Frederick, who taught sixth grade at St. Mary’s School in the 1950s, found herself graduating from Dunbarton College along with one of her first pupils whom she had taught 10 years before…" One of the best-remembered nuns, Sister Cypriana Meehan, has been described as typifying the devotion of the sisters to the parish. She taught first grade at St. Mary from "before World War II until 1957," when she was transferred. In the 1950s, Sister Cypriana taught a split session each day — one class of 30-35 children in the morning and then — after a short lunch — another group, and "every one of Sister Cypriana’s students learned to read and add and subtract." Sister Cypriana returned to her old first grade classroom at St. Mary in September 1971. After retiring from full-time teaching, Sister spent hours each day tutoring children. Because space was tight, she had a little desk and two chairs placed in the niche under the center hall stairway and there she helped a number of Vietnamese and Hispanic children master reading and phonics. It was reported that, "Soon they were speaking the language like natives—but with a Boston accent." One of her former pupils became a finalist in a Metropolitan Washington spelling bee. When Mary P. Davis was named the first lay principal of St. Mary School in 1987, Sister Cypriana was quick to point out that Davis, who had been one of her students, was now her boss. But Sister said this was okay "because I taught her everything she knows." She had also taught St. Mary art teacher Kitty Wallen Guy and her daughter, Cathy Guy. Many former students and colleagues bid a sad farewell to Sister Cypriana at a reception in 1988. After years of serving the school, Sister Cypriana moved to the order’s Motherhouse in South Bend, Ind., where she died in 1993. During the 1970s and ’80s, two memorable principals led St. Mary School. A familiar sight was Sister Stella, accompanied every day by her poodle, Peter. Sister Maureen Minihane, a "vivacious Boston Irish redhead" and ardent fan of the Washington Redskins and Boston Celtics, served as principal until 1987. Sister Maureen explained that "If I see someone who looks unhappy, I try to say something which will put a smile back on their face." Sister was known for her sense of fun, pep rallies for her favorite teams and the grand celebration of St. Patrick’s Day. Although St. Mary had an all-time high enrollment of 1,170 students for the 1962-63 school year, by the mid-1980s, the number had dropped to 315. As an incentive for parents to send their children to St. Mary, in 1983 Apple computers were installed in the school, with instruction for grades five through eight. A tiny, but very energetic nun, Sister Marian Joseph, affectionately known as "Shortstuff," became the computer teacher. Although Sister was "one of the senior teachers in the diocese," she enthusiastically tackled modern technology. Sister Marian Joseph also organized fundraising efforts such as selling candy to finance the purchase of more computers. A layperson was hired as computer teacher in 1993. Sister Marian Joseph, who is now "in her 90s," lives at the Motherhouse in South Bend. In 1986, Sister Beniti and Sister Bernadette were reunited at St. Mary School when Sister Bernadette became assistant principal. She also served as the parish’s director of religious education. The Holy Cross order could not provide a sister to replace Sister Maureen in 1987 when Davis was chosen for the job. By the time of the parish bicentennial celebration in 1995, only three Sisters of the Holy Cross remained there, Sister Beniti, Sister Bernadette and Sister Camilla. When Sister Beniti reached "retirement" age, she continued teaching part-time as religion teacher and tutor. Sister Camilla, who had reached her 60th anniversary in the order, is living in a Holy Cross home in Ventura, Calif. Both Sister Beniti and Sister Bernadette have celebrated their diamond jubilees. In the past year, both sisters have served the parish by visiting residents of Woodbine Nursing Home and as Eucharistic ministers. The last two Sisters of the Holy Cross at St. Mary will leave around July 1 for their new home at St. Angela, a Holy Cross retirement home in Rockville, Md., "with a pool," they add enthusiastically. Before they move into their new home, Sister Beniti and Sister Bernadette will make a road trip, driving with another sister to South Bend to mark Sister Bernadette’s jubilee. They promised to say hello to Sister Marian Joseph. "They have been wonderful years and we are very sad about leaving," said Sister Bernadette. "But there comes a time when you do what you have to do. We’ve been in teaching for 60 years…each. All the sisters are getting older, and there are no vocations. No one is coming to `take our places." Many thanks to Kitty Wallen Guy for providing historical information about the Sisters of the Holy Cross.

Copyright ?2001 Arlington Catholic Herald.  All rights reserved.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2001