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Loretto and the Arts

Posted on February 28, 2023, by Susanna Pyatt

The Sisters of Loretto were founded in 1812 with a mission of teaching, but what were their schools like? To answer one aspect of this question, an upcoming exhibit at the Loretto Heritage Center explores how Sisters of Loretto taught the arts over the last 200 years. Since the founding of the order, many Sisters have been involved with teaching music, art, and drama, as both standard parts of the curriculum and as private lessons.

The 1816 Rule of the Sisters of Loretto positioned song as part of religious education: “It is for the school an [sic] help to piety, a pleasant recreation, a refreshment of zeal and an addition to education.” Music continued to be part of the education at Loretto schools throughout their histories, though the specific curriculum changed over the years. For instance, many Sisters and former students recall the Ward Method. This curriculum, aimed at Catholic children and the renewal of ancient sacred music, was put into place at all Loretto schools in the late 1930s.

Collection of seven teacher' guides with lesson plans for teaching music according to the Ward Method.
The Ward Method was developed by Justine Ward in 1913. Sr. Rose Vincent Wander SL worked with Ward to create the books used for teaching this method in elementary schools.
These books are from the Loretto Heritage Center collections

Private lessons in music and art were essential for the financial support of Loretto schools and convents. Over the years, students could pay extra tuition to take lessons in piano, organ, harp, violin, banjo, mandolin, etc., as well as drawing; painting in watercolor, oil, and pastel; or china painting. By the 1930s, Loretto tried to have a piano teacher assigned to every single school. One teacher might have over 70 piano students each week!

A nun in a habit watches over her class of young girls who appear to be singing from sheet music while one girls accompanies on piano.
Sr. Ann Rita teaching piano students at Nativity School (Flagstaff, AZ), mid-20th century.
Image from the Loretto Heritage Center collections

Teaching the arts extended into Loretto’s two colleges, Webster College (Webster Groves, MO) and Loretto Heights College (Denver, CO). In the 20th century, many Sisters of Loretto who taught art, music, and drama received their Bachelor’s degrees from one of these colleges. Artist Sisters include Gabriel Mary Hoare, Roberta Hudlow, and Jeanne Dueber, who were all educated in part at Loretto institutions and went on to have long teaching careers and also produce a large volume of pieces themselves.

Students in an art class, standing at easels and painting portraits of a man smoking a pipe.
Students in Sr. Mary Norbert Parsoneault’s art class, Loretto Heights College (Denver, CO), c. 1945.
Image from the Loretto Heritage Center collections

We have less documentation of how drama was taught at Loretto schools. Graduation programs from the 19th and early 20th centuries indicate that plays and musical productions were common at end-of-year celebrations. In the mid-20th century, school productions ranged from short skits written by students or teachers to full-length works popular at the time, like the musicals West Side Story and Oklahoma. Both of Loretto’s colleges had Speech and Theatre departments.

For more information about Loretto and the arts, check out the full exhibit at the Heritage Center, coming in spring 2023!

A moment in a play - a young couple in love are holding hands and singing to each other, and a young man coming out from under a table looks up in shock at a surprised young woman who has discovered him.
Student production at Loretto High School (Louisville, KY), 1960s or 1970s.
Image from the Loretto Heritage Center collections

Susanna Pyatt

Susanna Pyatt is the director of the Loretto Heritage Center. A graduate of Western Kentucky University's Folk Studies program, she geeks out over American communal societies, historic buildings, and the artifacts of daily life.
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  1. Avatar Pam Peterworth Catlett on February 28, 2023 at 9:37 pm

    I had the pleasure of being part of the cast for Camelot, Class of 1965. It was so much fun. The boys involved were from Flaget High, just down the street from Loretto. Great memories of great times.

  2. Avatar Barbara Nicholas on February 28, 2023 at 9:47 pm

    Great memories of our operettas at Loretto High School in Louisville. Special memories of Sister Jane Marie Richardson and Sister Ann Monica.

  3. Avatar Linda (Baurle) McCauley on March 2, 2023 at 1:53 pm

    I was a dancer in the operettas Hello Dolly and Oklahoma, these were such FUN TIMES. . . Fond memories. . .

  4. Avatar Roberta Hudlow on March 29, 2023 at 8:09 pm

    Almost all my years of teaching in Loretto schools, I had the job of designing and building sets for musicals. It really started when I was in high school at Loretto Academy, KC. with Hans Christian Anderson and when we did Babes in Toyland I got to work with set designers from Kansas City’s Children’s Theater. Musicals at LAKC were mainly a showcase for our dance class. At Loetto High School in Louisville, I remember work on Hello Dolly and designing and directing students in making sets for My Fair Lady and Music Man. I remember having to get creative for Finnian’s Rainbow. S Ann Monica did some daring things because of our mixed neighborhood in the west end of Louisville. Our Dolly was Black but Horace Vandergelder was white. Finnian’s Rainbow makes fun of prejudice, especially when the rich and prejudiced plantation owner is turned black. At Nerinx Hall I designed sets and then taught students to do set building and painting as part of their art class. Musicals included, Kiss Me Kate, Fiddler on the Roof, Mame, Annie Get Your Gun, No No Nanette and Funny Girl. We also produced silk screened posters to advertise the plays and to advertise for actors from the boy’s schools. For Fiddler, most of our male cast came from Webster U. Gary Schaeffer even grew a beard in hopes to get the part of Tevya–he did — and dancers came who could do the Russian dancing. Other memories of Loretto musicals were a couple of Gabe’s productions. She directed, planned sets and designed and helped produce costumes. She used her student art teachers as relief for all those other duties. When Jeanne, Anne and I student taught she was working on Once Upon a Mattress. I remember The Wizard of Oz when we were in the House of Studies. Sharon Kassing’s dad played the part of the Cowardly Lion. Musicals showcased acting, singing and dancing. I am so grateful for my years of working with Jim Paul at Nerinx and his successor Maggie Ryan always chose shows that brought tears. I thank them both and for the years of working with Ann Monica that began in high school.

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Loretto welcomes you

Learn more or plan a visit to the Motherhouse!