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Intrepid sisters travel to Santa Fe in 1852

Posted on February 17, 2023, by Eleanor Craig SL

Ink drawing of a covered wagon pulled by oxen, followed by a horse drawn buggy bearing three bonnetted women.

Adapted by Eleanor Craig SL from PJ Manion SL’s “Beyond the Adobe Wall”

Santa Fe, historic capital of New Mexico, has long been known for its jewel-like setting at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo mountain, and for its early cultural diversity that has left a distinctive imprint upon the city. Among the historical threads braided into Santa Fe’s rich heritage is the story of the Sisters of Loretto, who first arrived in 1852.

They had been escorted over the Santa Fe Trail by New Mexico’s new Bishop, Jean Baptist Lamy, a Frenchman by birth who was handed the task of Americanizing the Church and expanding its mission in the arid Southwest. Within three months of their arrival, the sisters opened Our Lady of Light Academy, on land scarcely two blocks from the central plaza, the destination of Santa Fe Trail caravans, and today a historic site and tourist destination.

Sisters Matilda Mills, Magdalen Hayden, Catherine Mahoney, Rosanna Dant, Monica Bailey and Roberta Brown left the Loretto Motherhouse on June 27, traveling by horse-drawn wagon to Bardstown, Ky., and by afternoon stage to Louisville. Staying for some days at Cedar Grove Academy, they awaited the next steamboat that would take them down the Ohio River and up the Mississippi to meet Bishop Lamy in St. Louis.

On July 10 the sisters and Lamy boarded the Kansas, a Missouri River steamboat, for the trip to Independence, Mo., and the starting point of the Santa Fe Trail. The river trip was expected to take eight days, giving Lamy time to begin the sisters’ Spanish lessons (a language he himself had just learned).

In the early hours of July 16, the future of the little group changed radically. Mother Matilda, the superior, was suddenly ill. The burning fever, vomiting and cramps left no doubt that she had contracted the fatal disease cholera, and in a few hours she had died. The sisters had scarcely realized their loss when it became apparent that Monica showed the first symptoms of cholera and after her, Magdalen.

Because of the danger of contagion, Lamy’s entire entourage was put off the steamboat 6 miles short of their destination. The sickened sisters were left to recover in a riverside warehouse while Matilda’s body was buried in secret at night in a private cemetery. Sister Monica was too ill to go further; she would return to St. Louis. Three years later she would join the sisters in Santa Fe. Magdalen recovered in a few days. Bishop Lamy took her aside and asked her to take Matilda’s place as superior of the little group of sisters. She said she was willing, but only if her superiors in Kentucky agreed.

Magdalen, 39, had already served as superior at several Missouri convents, even at her home place at the Barrens. For several years she had been in charge of training novices at the Loretto Motherhouse. Being the superior of a community of four seemed simple enough. Going to a foreign land with so many unknowns was the challenge!

Early on Aug. 1, Lamy had assembled a crew and a dozen wagons filled with supplies for his new diocese and the sisters’ school. The caravan, including the sisters’ Dearborn wagon, was ready to leave Independence. Eager to be on the way west, all 23 members of Lamy’s party seemed jubilant. In less than an hour, however, all came to a halt. A wagon was in trouble; a wheel had to be repaired. Then rain began to fall. It was too late to raise tents. As night fell, a raging storm took over. Wind, lightning and thunder rocked the wagons, threatening to rip the canvas covers away. The sisters huddled together in their carriage; sleep was impossible.

Later Magdalen learned from the bishop that during that stormy, sleepless night, he had considered returning to Independence. He wrote to a fellow bishop about his reservations. Perhaps he had been premature in bringing sisters to New Mexico. How would gently-raised women cope with the rough 800-mile trail and then the demands of primitive living once they reached Santa Fe? Over the next weeks, as the caravan slowly made its way along the trail, Bishop Lamy’s qualms would give way to a growing admiration and confidence in the Loretto pioneers.

More than 1,200 miles from Kentucky’s knobs — by steamboat on three great rivers, by wagon caravan through dry prairies — after three months, the sisters reached journey’s end. Their Dearborn wagon entered Santa Fe on Sunday afternoon, Sept. 26, 1852. Close to 1,000 people came to greet them with music and garlands of flowers. The welcome was overwhelming. The sisters had come simply to open a school for girls. How could they have imagined such a celebration upon their arrival?

They received two orphan girls as their first students that November, and in January 1853, the Sisters of Loretto officially opened Our Lady of Light Academy. It would serve families of the Southwest until 1968.

To read all the articles in the Winter 2022-2023 issue of Loretto Magazine, click here.


Eleanor Craig SL

Eleanor has been a Sister of Loretto since 1963 and an educator since birth. She graduated from two of Loretto's best known St. Louis institutions, Nerinx Hall High School in 1960, and Webster University in 1967. She taught mathematics at Loretto in Kansas City, where her personal passion for adventure history inspired her to develop and lead treks along the historic Oregon Trail. From 1998 to 2010 she created an award-winning program of outdoor adventure along the Western trails for teens who are visually impaired. Eleanor claims to have conducted more wagon trains to the West than the Mountain Men! From 2012 to 2021, Eleanor led a talented staff of archivists and preservationists at the Loretto Heritage Center on the grounds of the Motherhouse. She recently retired, but still serves in the Heritage Center as Loretto Community Historian.
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