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Imelda Wallace and Old Mrs. Sullivan’s Curse

Posted on February 8, 2018, by Loretto Community

By Laurel Wilson

Imelda Wallace’s graduation photo from Northern Arizona Normal School, 1903.

As I process the personal papers that sisters donated to the archives, I learn about the varied lives and careers that Sisters of Loretto have had. One sister whose story has fascinated me recently is Sister Imelda Wallace SL, the focus of this week’s LOREtto blog post.

Imelda was born in 1884 as Lorabel Wallace on a farm in the woods of Michigan, but her family moved to the Northern Arizona frontier when she was a young child. She came from a Methodist family that had been steeped in anti-Catholic propaganda for many generations, dating back to 16th century Scotland when Catholics were persecuted. Imelda grew up listening to her father and grandfather frequently call the Roman Catholic Church blasphemous. But as a young man, her grandfather had performed a favor for a Catholic neighbor known as “Old Mrs. Sullivan,” who as thanks prayed that Imelda’s grandfather or one of his descendants would become a Catholic. Imelda’s grandfather was furious and thought of the woman’s prayer as a curse, but little did he know that two generations later, “Old Mrs. Sullivan’s curse” would be fulfilled through Imelda.

At 14 years old, Imelda found herself by chance attending a Catholic funeral Mass, which became a life-changing experience. As she later recounted of her first Mass, “in an instant, I knew one thing: Jesus Christ, the Lord God Almighty, was there on that altar. …His Church, the Catholic Church, must be the one and only true Church.”

An undated portrait of Imelda Wallace.

Coming out as a Catholic to her family caused a rift that remained unsettled for the rest of their lives. However, Imelda persisted in practicing her chosen faith. She secretly wrote to the local priest, began attending weekday Mass, and visited a nearby convent populated by Sisters of Loretto to study Catholicism. Yet she could not officially be received into the Catholic Church without her father’s permission until she turned of legal age at 21. As that birthday approached, she was baptized, made her first Holy Communion, and was confirmed all on the same day.

But her entrance into the Sisters of Loretto was delayed several more years, because she was expected to contribute to her family’s household, even though it was a home in which she was no longer welcome. However, she finally set off for the Loretto Motherhouse in 1908 to enter the Novitiate. She went to the train depot in Flagstaff, Arizona and asked for a ticket to Loretto, Kentucky. The gate agent said “Where in thunderation is Loretto, Kentucky? Not on any list. Here’s a ticket to Louisville. Find out when you get there.”

Upon disembarking from the L&N train in Loretto, she found that “Kentuckians and Arizonians are alike in one thing: they do love horses. From the moment the bays struck their here-we-go-home trot, peace and joy thrilled me. The ten-year battle [to become a Catholic nun] was over. I was going home, and Loretto has been my home ever since.”

For 40 years, Imelda taught at Loretto schools across the Midwest and became a well-respected author, often using her childhood on the Western frontier and her family’s Scottish roots as inspiration. She wrote a series of religious textbooks for children, numerous short stories, and two novels: “Outlaws of Ravenhurst” and “The Lure of the West.” She earned a bachelor’s degree from Loretto Heights College in Denver, Colorado and a master’s degree from Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. She died in 1957 at the Loretto Motherhouse Infirmary. In my work going through the backlog of sisters’ personal papers, I hope to shine a light on sisters such as Imelda.

Cover of the “Outlaws of Ravenhurst” novel.
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