Honoring the Legacy of the Sisters in Owensboro

Posted by Kacie Emmerson

April 23, 2024

A memorial at Owensboro Catholic High School celebrates the legacy of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth and their pivotal role in establishing Catholic education in the area.

Over the years, hundreds of Sisters of Charity of Nazareth taught at Owensboro Catholic High School (formerly St. Frances Academy). Many Sisters, including Sister Maggie Cooper, are also graduates of the school and experienced the Sisters’ guidance firsthand prior to their vocation.

“I received a great preparation for my future education,” Sister Maggie said of attending Owensboro Catholic High. “It instilled values, joy, learning, and camaraderie. … Those foundations were what this school was built on.”

On April 19, Sister Maggie proudly shared her love of OCHS with those who gathered to bless the school’s new Alumni Enrichment Center, which also showcased a beautiful memorial on the wall depicting the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth’s presence in Owensboro.

“It’s a very special honor to celebrate our Sisters and their roles in the early years,” Sister Maggie said, looking at the wall.

Sister Maggie Cooper is all smiles as she enters her alma mater, Owensboro Catholic High School, on April 19, 2024.

The Sisters’ ties to Owensboro began in 1849 when they were called upon by priests in the area to begin educating the children of Catholic families who had migrated to Western Kentucky. The school, then called St. Frances Academy, started in an old frame building, a former hotel at 3rd and Allen Streets. The academy was established 22 years before the first public school would open.

Increasing enrollment necessitated a move for the academy, and a new building was constructed nearby. In 1948, Saint Frances Academy merged with Saint Joseph High School, forming a central Catholic high school. A few years later, the students moved to a new Diocesan building, what is now Owensboro Catholic High, on Parrish Avenue.

Sister Maggie was joined at the blessing by Mary Elizabeth Miller, SCN, a former president of the Congregation, who spoke briefly about the school’s historical significance.

“St. Frances Academy was one of many schools opened by our pioneer Sisters in the early 1800s, and it’s significant to note that it is one of three that were opened during Mother Catherine’s lifetime that are still in existence today,” Sister Mary Elizabeth said. The other two schools are Bethlehem High School in Bardstown and Presentation Academy in Louisville.

Fellow SCNs Dorothy Wilson, Shirley Howe, Susann Gobber, and Mary Eula Johnson were also in attendance, representing just a few of the Sisters who were involved with the high school in the past as either teachers or students. Sister Mary Eula was the last Sister of Charity of Nazareth to minister in the Diocese of Owensboro.

Liz Field, SCNA and Sister Mary Elizabeth Miller chat following a blessing of the Alumni Enrichment Center at Owensboro Catholic High School.

Also in attendance was Liz Field, an OCHS graduate and Sister of Charity of Nazareth Associate, who spoke about the effort to bring about the memorial.

“It’s been a long process to bring this day together,” Field said, recognizing those who served on the Memorial Committee, including SCNs Maggie Cooper, Mary Eula Johnson, and Marie Becker, Nola Courtney, Mary Lee Fitzsimmons, and Gene Moore. “I can’t thank people enough times for all of you who have contributed to the project.”

During a class reunion, Field said she and others noticed an absence of visual references to the Sisters and that part of the school’s history. They wanted something to showcase their legacy to students, staff, and families. She said that the richness of the education, spiritual formation, and sense of community and dedication instilled in them as students by the Sisters were too important to go unrecognized.

Calling upon fellow alumni to help plan and fund the project, this idea eventually grew into the creation of the memorial now displayed in the Alumni Enrichment Center.

The wall depicts imagery of Mother Catherine Spalding on the right and embossed “Local Impact, Global Reach,” highlighting the Sisters’ national and international presence. The memorial also offers a brief history of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth and a timeline of their presence in Owensboro.

The visual is a powerful reminder to former students, like Field, of the important work the Sisters did and continue to do in communities such as Owensboro and beyond. After graduating from OCHS, Field went on to study at Nazareth and later Spalding College, where she earned a master’s degree in religious education. She went on to serve in various roles within the Diocese of Owensboro.

“The Sisters, in a sense, formed 99% of my education, and I feel so fortunate and so blessed for the foundation … my family gave me,” she said.

Today, Field continues the Sisters’ mission through prayer, service, and discussion.

“As an Associate, I continue to believe in that spirit and example of Mother Catherine Spalding,” Field said. “She strove to continue the attitudes of Christ in her time, so the Sisters do now.”

Impelled by the Love of Christ

Matt Madej, Owensboro Catholic Schools Faith Formation Director, said the school is working diligently to encourage students to be impelled by the love of Christ, as the Sisters are.

“The education, the academic side without the practice of the faith, can ultimately become a little stale,” Madej said. “The students here have helped drive that process. We have daily Eucharist adoration at the high school. The demand for adoration from the kids has led to them asking for more opportunities for confession at the school. We have added a morning Mass at the high school as well,” and students in middle and high school come on their own time to worship.

“Ultimately, your 100-plus years of service to this system and to this Diocese have helped lay the groundwork for those of us that are involved in Catholic education now and here to continue that spirit that is the love of Christ that drives us for other people,” Madej told the Sisters.

Sister Mary Eula Johnson speaks with Bishop William Medley of the Diocese of Owensboro. Sister Eula was the last SCN to minister in the Diocese.

Passing the Torch

Tom Lilly, Chancellor of the Diocese of Owensboro, spoke of the importance of collaboration among laity and religious in adapting to a changing educational landscape. While Lilly did not attend Catholic high school, he was taught by the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth at St. Ann’s in Morganfield during his formative years.

“We have great lay generosity, but we also have great religious generosity and support in our schools as well, as our very first teachers and in creating these wonderful institutions that are going long after them and long after us,” Lilly said. “Synodality is about the collaboration that takes place between the laity and the religious in the church and trying to work together to understand each other and accompany each other in our processes.”

As Owensboro has grown and adapted, so, too, has the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth’s ministry in education throughout the United States and beyond. Today, Sisters are educating students in India, Nepal, Belize, Botswana, and Kenya.

Although the Sisters left OCHS in 1983, their legacy continues in Owensboro, where the educated laity, faculty, and staff have accepted the challenge of carrying forward the torch of Catholic education, guided by love and faith.

The Alumni Enrichment Center at Owensboro Catholic High School was made possible due to the generosity of alums Earl and Paula Fischer, given in memory of John M. Gilles, Sally A. Fischer, and Pat A. Hawley. The space was blessed on Friday, April 19, 2024, by Bishop William Medley of the Diocese of Owensboro.

OCHS celebrates blessing of new Alumni Enrichment Center, SCN Memorial Project 

FROM THE ARCHIVES: The SCN Archival Center compiled this list of Sisters missioned to St. Frances Academy and Owensboro Catholic High School from 1849 to 1983. VIEW THE LIST.

A gathering of Sisters of Charity of Nazareth who were missioned in Owensboro, Kentucky, circa 1950.

2 Comments

  1. Betsy Bennett

    Liz Field is my cousin and her contributions to this piece make me so very proud. Congratulations , Nazareth!!!

    Reply
  2. Anne Beavan, SCNA

    Congratulations, Liz Field, SCNA, and all of the Sisters and Associates who worked so hard to bring this inspiring tribute into reality! It is beautiful and a lasting memorial of the dedication and service of so many SCNs over many years. Thank you for sharing with all of us!

    Reply

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