Displaying Loretto at the Chicago World’s Fair
By Susanna Pyatt
Visitors to the Loretto Heritage Center may recall a display in the museum about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. The deep display case is designed to mimic the Sisters of Loretto exhibit at the Fair, where the Sisters placed work from their students for millions of fairgoers to see. Six years after the opening of the museum, Heritage Center staff are updating the display about the Fair to provide more historical context for the 1893 exhibit and to better represent the materials that were placed on show there.
The 1893 showcase of Loretto work was part of the larger Catholic Educational Exhibit, housed with other educational displays in the enormous Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building. The contributors to the Catholic exhibit filled their allotted 115 alcoves with a dense amount of material produced by Catholic schools and their teachers. The intent of exhibit planners (led by Brother Maurelian, FSC) was to demonstrate publicly the curricula and quality of education provided by Catholic schools. They believed the exhibit would “surely serve to enlighten the public and to allay prejudice” that sprung “from ignorance of what we are and what we are doing.”¹ This transparency and advocacy followed decades of conflict over education in the United States, where anti-Catholic leaders often warned of the supposed dangers of Protestant children attending Catholic schools instead of public or Protestant schools.²
The Sisters of Loretto were one of 23 teaching orders who contributed displays for the Catholic Educational Exhibit. Assigned Alcoves 62 and 64, Loretto teachers selected work from at least 23 of their schools in Alabama, Colorado, Kentucky, Missouri, New Mexico, and Texas. These schools represented the range of institutions operated by Loretto at the time: academies, parish schools, industrial schools for Native Americans, and a normal institute for training teachers.
Many of the items placed on display were books of schoolwork, showing both the quality of students’ work and what subjects were taught. The Loretto archives has several of these books, some of which will be placed on display in the updated museum exhibit. Common subjects included Christian doctrine, history, mathematics, geography, literature, grammar, rhetoric, the sciences, and music. Other objects exhibited the handiwork of students and teachers. Handmade lace and clothing, embroidered vestments, crochet work, paintings and drawings, hand-painted china dishes, and poetic and musical compositions all showed off the accomplishments of Loretto students across the country.
The Lorettines and other exhibit contributors aimed to show an accurate range of their students’ work, not just the most excellent examples. The work displayed was not always the most correct or skillful. Still, the books and other items displayed by Loretto received multiple awards from the Fair’s Bureau of Awards. The Heritage Center has a ribbon awarded at the Fair, only one example of the recognition from public eyes of the quality of Loretto work.
1 Quoted in Final Report: Catholic Educational Exhibit, World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893, by Brother Maurelian, FSC, p. 14.
2 See the LOREtto blog post “Loretto in Taos” for an account of Lorettines’ later experience with anti-Catholic opposition while teaching in Taos, NM.