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Loretto pioneers of education in the West

Posted on February 20, 2024, by Loretto Community

Loretto Heights College

Sepia toned photo of a college building surrounded by trees. A Celtic cross graces the building's tower.
The approach to Loretto Heights College in Denver in 1949 offers a view of the original Loretto Heights Academy building, partially obscured by trees (hundreds of trees were planted around the campus). This building, dating to 1887, would later become the college’s administration building. A Celtic cross graces the building’s tower. Celtic crosses also adorn Pancratia Hall, built in 1929.
All photos in this story courtesy of Loretto Archives

The bodies of 62 Sisters of Loretto who had been buried in the cemetery at Loretto Heights College in Denver were moved to a new resting place at Mount Olivet Catholic Cemetery in Wheat Ridge, Colo., in August 2022.

Most of the sisters had come to Loretto Heights to teach, often arriving from New Mexico, Missouri or Kentucky. They were true pioneers, and not only in the educational sense — many undertook perilous journeys before arriving in Denver. It took two months for one sister, Luisa Romero SL, to travel from Santa Fe, N.M., to Denver by ox cart in 1865, a journey of five hours by car today.

Loretto Heights was first the site of an academy, opened in 1891. Loretto Heights College was founded on the site in 1918. The Heights property was sold in 1988 and continued as a university for some years. Today it is under redevelopment to include low-income housing and an art venue, among other amenities.

A few of the sisters who were buried in the Loretto Heights cemetery are featured here.

A blurry black and white photo of a religious sister in a habit holding a skinny sign that says "Loretto Heights."
Sister Aurelia Archambault.

Aurelia Archambault was born in 1855. Her father, an immigrant from Montreal, ran a trading post on the Sweetwater River in Wyoming. The family moved to Nebraska in 1856 when fighting broke out between settlers and Native Americans. She attended public schools in Nebraska and Missouri. Aurelia entered Loretto in 1870, at the age of 15, from St. Louis. She studied English and music and taught at schools in Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri and Colorado.

She wrote, “The burning of St. Ann’s Academy [in what is now St. Paul, Kan.] on Sept. 3, 1895, was the most extraordinary event I witnessed in religion. Witnessed the burning of Webster too.” [She may be referring to a boarding school for girls run by Loretto after purchasing the Webster property; the school burned in 1905. Webster College opened in 1924.]

She grew deaf in her later years, allotting more time to her favorite activities, reading and prayer. The last years of her life were spent at Loretto Heights where she retired at age 75. She died in 1943.

A sepia toned photo of a religious sister in a black habit and robes standing and holding a rosary.
Sister Pancratia Bonfils.

Pancratia Bonfils was born in 1852 in St. Louis to Protestant parents. She converted to Catholicism while attending Loretto Academy in Florissant, Mo., and was confirmed at the age of 12. The next year she decided to dedicate her life to God. A determined young woman, she took first vows at the age of 16 and immediately set out for Denver to help at the new Loretto school, St. Mary’s Academy, where she was known for her kindness to Native Americans who came to the school for food.

She taught at St. Mary’s for many years and served as superior in 1891 and 1892 before going on to oversee the founding of Loretto Heights Academy (later College). She chose the site on a hill in south Denver and directed construction of the first two campus buildings. She served as the school’s first superior. Except for brief interludes, she spent the rest of her life as superior of St. Mary’s or Loretto Heights, working until her death in 1915.

In 1929 when a new building was added at Loretto Heights, it was appropriately named Pancratia Hall.

A black and white photo of a nun in habit looks off to the side and is holding a rolled up book.
Sister Davina Burns.

Davina Burns was born in 1854. She entered Loretto in 1875 and died in 1889 at St. Mary’s Convent in Denver.

An obituary in a local newspaper noted that she had a “rare magnetism of soul.” According to the writer, “Probably no sister in Colorado was more sincerely or more universally beloved than the late Sister Davina. The holiness and simplicity of her life drew all hearts to her …. In her presence, one felt as if she were haloed with the beautiful innocence of childhood, made more beautiful still by the radiant virtue which sacredly guarded it. Her smile was the smile of purest joy, for her joy was always in God; her tears ever reflected the consoling light of submission to God’s will, were ever touched by the ray of highest charity. Her religion was a religion of love, her example a saintly exhortation. Sister Davina was a model religious, and her death was in harmony with the peace and beauty of her life. Surrounded by her sisters in religion, strengthened by the Holy Sacraments, and with the hands of God’s minister lifted in final blessing over her, she calmly closed her eyes to the things of earth, which had been to her so many reflections of God’s love and goodness, and opened them, we pray, to the eternal joys of heaven.”

A black and white photo of a nun in habit looking at the camera with a stoic gaze.
Sister Clare Clayton.

Clare Clayton was born in 1875 in Holy Cross, Ky., entering Loretto in 1892. She taught second and third grades for more than 50 years at schools in Missouri and Ohio and served as superior at several schools. She had a special love for St. Louis.

She died during a summer visit to Denver in 1952, in the 60th year of her vowed life, and was buried at Loretto Heights.

A religious sister in a habit stands in front of a large staircase with a dog near her side.
Sister Lua Kelleher.

Lua Kelliher was born in 1887 in County Clare, Ireland. She entered Loretto in 1907 and was sent to Loretto Heights Academy in Denver. She was known for her childlike disposition.

Suffering from poor health, she died in 1912, just after her 25th birthday.

A religious sister standing wearing a habit and looking directly at the camera with her hands held together.
Sister Vivian Edelen.

Vivian Edelen was born in Kentucky in 1870 and entered Loretto in 1894. She spent 50 years as an administrator and teacher at St. Mary’s Academy and Loretto Heights College. She was the registrar at Loretto Heights for 25 years and was head of the history department until her death.

She held a master’s from the University of Colorado and a Ph.D. from DePaul University in Chicago. She was well-loved and was known for her knowledge of politics and history, as well as astronomy, which she generously shared. She was also a gifted musician.

Throughout her life, she kept in touch with Sister Celine, a Carmelite and the first graduate of Loretto Heights College, who recalled her teacher’s vivid astronomy lessons many years later. She died in 1947.

A religious sister in a habit and robes is standing looking past the camera holding a small book.
Sister Floscella Keating.

Floscella Keating was born in 1873 in Kansas to Irish parents. She was educated at St. Ann’s Academy in what is now St. Paul, Kan., for eight years.

She entered Loretto in 1894. She worked in the kitchens in Santa Fe, N.M., and Pueblo, Colo., for several years, before being sent to Loretto Heights in Denver where she spent the next 35 years taking care of the chaplain’s home and dining room, as well as his pet collies, each named Jack (the dog in the photo of Sister Lua Kelleher is likely one of the Jacks).

She died at Loretto Heights on Holy Saturday in 1940.

A sepia toned photo of a nun in habit with small round glasses looks to the right of the camera.
Sister Aime Hynes.

Amie Hynes was born in 1868 in St. Louis to Irish parents. She taught at several schools in Colorado, spending the last 30 years of her life at St. Mary’s Academy.

She wrote, “I entered religion as a novice on Aug. 15, 1888. Since then I have studied painting and music, especially vocal, and have taught the elementary branches and painting.”

She was said to have a happy outlook on life and was blessed with many friends. At her funeral Mass, the Rev. C.M. Johnson said, “In the 42 years of her religious life, Sister Aimee has lived a life of joy, humor and service.” She died in 1930.

A black and white photo of a nun in habit standing looking at the camera. She is wearing clear framed rectangular glasses and a rosary hangs from her waist.
Sister Francis de Sales McGarry.

Francis de Sales McGarry was born in Colorado Springs, Colo., in 1900. She entered Loretto in 1921, the year after graduating from Loretto Heights College with a bachelor’s in romance languages and minors in Latin and philosophy. She went on to earn a master’s in Spanish and a minor in French. In 1937 she was awarded a Ph.D. in Spanish with minors in French and Italian from Catholic University in Washington, D.C. In 1957 she earned a Diploma Magisterii in Scientis Sacris from Regina Mundi in Rome where she studied for three years. She also studied in Havana and in Israel on a Department of State grant.

She taught at schools in Missouri and Colorado and served as dean at Loretto Heights College and at Webster College (now University) in St. Louis. She was teaching theology at Loretto Heights in 1967, the year she died.

To read all the articles in the Winter 2024 issue of Loretto Magazine, click here.


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