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Loretto Treasures: Webster University and Loretto Heights College

Posted on May 24, 2021, by Loretto Community

Looking up at a large brick building with "Loretto College" carved across the front, under an ornate rose window.
Loretto College, now Webster University

From the foundation of the Sisters of Loretto in 1812 to this day, education is central to the mission of Loretto. Schools were formed as the initial work of the Community as it was growing in Kentucky. The first Sisters quickly welcomed new members who joined the mission to serve the children of the area. The first pupil to join the Congregation was Agnes Heart in 1815. Another school opened in 1816 where the first academy was founded. The story of Loretto schools could fill a book and more, and does! In state after state the Sisters were invited to open academies that offered a broad liberal arts curriculum. Two of these academies, Webster College in St. Louis and Loretto Heights in Denver, evolved into standard senior colleges for women.

Two students walking on a winter campus
Loretto Heights College campus
Photo courtesy of Mary Nelle Gage SL

“I Am the Way,” Loretto’s Constitutions, #37, reads, “Our long and vital tradition of teaching takes many forms; we desire to educate others as well as ourselves to truth, beauty and the ways of peace, in the spirit of Jesus.” 

By 1964, in addition to operating two colleges, Loretto had opened 18 high schools, 73 elementary schools, a school for exceptional children, a pre-kindergarten and a school for Indian girls in Oklahoma, and three mission schools in Latin America and Hanyang, China. Much of Loretto’s mission work now is an outgrowth of the initial charism of education that the early members envisioned. The charism of Loretto in education continues today in a multitude of ways “in the spirit of Jesus.”

This week we highlight two of Loretto’s educational treasures, Webster College, now Webster University, and the former Loretto Heights College. The Sisters of Loretto founded Loretto (Webster) College in 1915 and operated the school until 1967, when ownership was transferred to a lay board. Today, Annie Stevens SL carries on Loretto’s tradition of teaching at Webster University, where she has served as adjunct professor of religious studies since 2005. Loretto Sister Barbara Ann Barbato, who taught history at Webster for more than 40 years, continues in her role there as professor emeritus. 

Three women stand outside looking at a drawing on a table.
From left, Elizabeth Robb, Webster University Class of ‘65 and chairwoman of the school’s Centennial Committee, looks on as Loretto Sisters Barbara Ann Barbato and Annie Stevens peer over the contents of Webster University’s new time capsule. The time capsule was dedicated and buried during the school’s centennial year in 2015.
Photo courtesy of Webster University Archives
Women beaming with smiles hold a painting of Webster University building
Seen here in 2012 are Webster University Loretto faculty and staff, who were honored to receive a painting of Loretto Hall to celebrate the Loretto bicentennial. From left are Carol Colligan CoL, Kathy Sullivan SL, Gabriel Mary Hoare SL, Annie Stevens SL and Barbara Ann Barbato SL.
Archival photo of Loretto sister making a poster with students
Loretto Sister Marita Michenfelder, who later became Loretto Co-member Marita Michenfelder Woodruff, is shown here with three Webster College students preparing for a college preview event. As a Sister of Loretto, Marita joined the faculty of Webster College in 1957 and chaired its theater arts department from 1959 to 1969. She was instrumental in the planning and design of the Loretto Hilton Center for the Performing Arts on Webster’s campus. The site now is home to the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, the Opera Theatre of St. Louis and the university’s theater arts department. 
Photo courtesy of Webster University Archives

Loretto Heights College, which began as Loretto Heights Academy, a Catholic elementary and secondary school for girls, was founded by Loretto in 1891 in Denver.  Since its closing in 1988, the Heights has gone through numerous transitions. Today, it is on the brink of yet another incarnation: a mixed-use residential and commercial development. The spirit of Loretto lives on at the former college site in the historic structures being retained and repurposed, in new street names to be designated in honor of Loretto and on the sacred ground of Loretto Heights Cemetery, which remains a part of the Loretto Heights campus. 

Archival photo of inside Loretto Heights College library with shelves of books and students reading at tables.
A scene from the Loretto Heights College library from 1930.
Photo courtesy of Mary Nelle Gage SL
Archival photo of Loretto Heights College main building
The main Loretto Heights College campus building from 1893.
Photo courtesy of Mary Nelle Gage SL
Collage of archival photos of the Loretto Heights College buildings and campus
Collage of Loretto Heights College photos representative of the 1890s.
Photo courtesy of Mary Nelle Gage SL

Be sure to visit Loretto’s Facebook page this week, where we will focus on the creation and growth of Webster College (University) and Loretto Heights College. We invite all Loretto alums, in particular, to walk with us again in their love for their alma maters. Education by its very nature changes lives. Historically, Loretto has been in the vanguard of providing classroom education from its very beginning. Loretto has given many students, from Kentucky to the Southwest to China to South America, a future full of hope. We continue to offer that same gift today. 

Loretto Community

Loretto Community

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Loretto welcomes you

Learn more or plan a visit to the Motherhouse!