Deus providebit: Loretto’s Legacy in Texas
By Christina Manweller
We were met in El Paso by two sisters in a canvassed-top spring wagon. The driver looked like he had never known soap, water, or a comb. Finally we reached San Elizario after dark the same evening. When daylight dawned upon us, really my impressions were not very encouraging, as it seemed we had reached God’s forsaken part of the world. . . . the church had no pews, a mud floor, the highways were full of ruts and holes.Sr. Bernard Doyle SL, 1884
The sisters arrived in Texas in 1879, moving south to San Elizario from New Mexico, where they had been teaching since 1852. They helped build a stone and adobe convent which housed their new school, St. Joseph’s Academy. A placita (small plaza) stood in the center, and all around the building, they planted flower and vegetable gardens and an orchard.
They remained in San Elizario teaching children from the area and from within Mexico until 1892. The promised railroad had been diverted to El Paso, drawing the sisters to move the school to the larger city. Packing five wagons with their belongings, including two pianos, they made the 22-mile journey through sand that was a foot deep in places. Before long, more than 200 students were enrolled at St. Joseph’s in El Paso.
Over the years, the sisters continued to expand their edu-cational efforts and influence through numerous parochial schools in El Paso, including Assumption (1960-1964), Guardian Angel (1912-1973), Holy Family (1922-1925), St. Ignatius (1905-1957), St. Mary’s at Immaculate Conception (1903-1966), St. Patrick (1923-1978), Sacred Heart (1892-1972), St. Joseph’s Cathedral School (1923-1976), and also Loretto’s own St. Joseph’s Academy (1934-1955).
In the early 1920s, Mother Praxedes Carty arrived in El Paso to oversee construction of a new all-girls school, where, in addition to traditional subjects, the sisters would provide the girls with leadership and life-skills training. She bought nearly 20 acres of desert land against the advice of A.J. Schuler SJ, the local bishop, who told her “If you succeed in building here, I’ll say you are the special child of our Divine Lord.” Certain that parents would never send their children to a school so far outside the city, naysayers called the project “Praxedes’ Folly.”
Loretto Academy President Mary E. “Buffy” Boesen SL writes:
Loretto Academy as we know it today owes much to Mother Praxedes Carty. In 1923 she returned to the Southwest after serving as the Superior General for 26 years. Building Loretto Academy seems to have been her retirement project. Oral history has it that she told architect Henry Trost to change the direction of the building so the two arms would reach out towards our neighbors in Mexico. According to the same oral tradition, Mother Praxedes was advised to construct one section of the building at a time. She responded that if she did that there would never be enough money to complete the building. So, she built the shell, and the sisters spent the next 13 years raising money to complete the interior. For years, some window openings had no glass and the sisters would shovel the sand out of the rooms in the morning.
Mother Praxedes Carty, born in Ireland in 1854, entered the order in 1874. She was sent to New Mexico in 1875 for her health, spending the next twenty years at Our Lady of Light Academy in Santa Fe, and Loretto schools in Bernalillo and Las Cruces. She was then assigned to Loretto Heights in Denver. In 1896, she was called to lead the order, which she did until she “retired” to Texas in the 1920s to found Loretto Academy.
The year before the Academy would open, Mother Praxedes, 68, and two sisters moved into bungalows on the property. When the school opened, eight teachers and 143 students, including 23 boarders, occupied the yet-to-be-completed building. It would be another 14 years before the convent, the chapel and the school would be finished inside and out.
Mother Praxedes lived deeply the Loretto motto Deus providebit, God will provide, and she tirelessly solicited funds for the school. In 1931, when traveling to St. Louis against her doctor’s wishes, she was injured in a fall; nevertheless she managed to secure an $80,000 loan for the school. Back in El Paso after the injury, she directed work on the unfinished buildings from her bed until her death in 1933 of complications from the fall. Sister Francetta Barberis then took over, supervising the continuing construction, including an elementary school, Hilton-Young Hall, a cafeteria and a swimming pool.
The convent, which is one arm of the structure—the school being the other, with the chapel in the center—once housed around 100 sisters, who were teaching at the Academy and other El Paso parochial schools. Today, it is home to several local non-profit service organizations.
The boarding school, which was on the third floor of the high school, housed students from first through 12th grades. In 1975, it closed, freeing up space for the girls’ middle school.
Today, Loretto Academy educates girls and boys from preschool through fifth grade and operates girls-only middle and high schools. The Academy’s focus on faith, community and problem-solving skills helps young graduates move into the world with confidence. The academic focus on STEM and STEAM—math, science and computing, along with education in fine arts—is enhanced by an emphasis on serving others.
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With thanks to Buffy Boesen SL, Eleanor Craig SL and Eva Ross.
Quote at the beginning comes from Loretto: Annals of the Century, Anna Minogue, 1912.