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Loretto’s Shortest Mission

Posted on September 18, 2019, by Loretto Heritage Center

By Ayla Toussaint

The first part of this blog post was written for us by Loretto’s second archivist, Sister Matilda Barrett!  Found in the archives vault, this short chapter recounts the story of Loretto’s shortest mission: 

Belen, New Mexico – Our Lady of Sorrows Convent – (1900/9/28-1900/10/5)

The shortest-lived Loretto foundation, if one may call it such, was that of Belen New Mexico – just one week.  

The Sisters assigned there were: Sister M. Victor McCormick, Superior and music teacher; Sister M. Loretto McAuliffe, housekeeper; Sisters Clarissa Jupe and Stella Tompkins, class teachers.  The expected number of pupils: 200.

The convent, for the school never materialized, called Our Lady of Sorrows, was established by Mother Praxedes September 28, 1900, and the Sisters arrived on that date.  They were met by a Mr. Goebel who offered them the hospitality of his home until the pastor who was absent at the time would return. No convent was prepared for them, but Mr. Phillip Chavez had made arrangements with the pastor to let the Sisters have the use of his large and nicely furnished home for a convent.

Mother Superior who had accompanied them to Belen was evidently less impressed with the attitude of the pastor than with the people.  The people were simple and good but the pastor seemed to lack sincerity and was something of an enigma to her. Monday brought the Sisters word from Mother Superior written form Santa Fe saying ‘Do nothing about school or house, take no steps until further notice, the school is too far from the house, etc., etc.’  Mother came and after much delay finally saw Father and the directors but with little result. As both Father and Mother Superior had to go to Santa Fe they left for the city to finish their business there. The indecision and uncertainty of the situation was beginning to affect all of the Sisters. The poor people came to see the Sisters and to tell them of their troubles.  They had not had First Communion in six years! Boys and girls of sixteen and seventeen years old had not made their First Communion. There was no Mass, no Holy Communion on the First Friday of October. After breakfast the mailman brought a letter from Mother Superior Praxedes. It said, ‘Pack up and go to Socorro to await further orders. Leave before Sunday if possible.’ The dear good people were dazed when they heard that the Sisters were leaving.  It was such a disappointment to them for they had waited patiently for them for so long. There was nothing the Sisters could do but obey orders. They left on the 1:14 A.M. train Saturday for Socorro.

(All Belen data has been culled from the Belen Annals compiled by Sister M. Victor McCormick.)

Belen, NM Flour mill in 1904. Horses, carts and workers in front of the mill.
Belen, 1904.  Courtesy of Internet Archive Book Images.

Sister Matilda Barrett wrote this brief chapter for her proposed book One Hundred and Fifty Years, documenting Loretto missions from 1812 to 1962.  Unfortunately, Matilda passed away before completing her work.  The finished sections of the history were compiled and edited by her close friends, who published Matilda’s work as “Part One 1812-1890.”  The story of the ill-fated Belen mission did not make it into the published volume.  

Although the Sisters were only in Belen for seven days, the annals are comprised of twenty-four handwritten pages documenting the arrival, brief stay, and departure of the Sisters.  The annalist, Sister M. Victor McCormick, documented the week with fine detail, helping us to uncover not only why the school failed to open, but also how the Sisters and townspeople felt about the events as they transpired.  Although the Sisters were exasperated with the local priest, they did feel need and appreciation from the people of Belen.  

Sister M. Victor McCormick sitting in the woods.
Undated photo of Sister M. Victor McCormick. LHC Archives

The trouble began almost as soon as the Sisters arrived in Belen.  When the four Sisters arrived with Mother Praxedes at the train station, the priest was not in town to greet them.  Although several wealthy patrons and townspeople were there to help the Sisters settle in, the absence of the priest was inexcusable in Mother Praxedes’ eyes.  Tensions escalated when the Sisters went on their own to survey the future school. Walking through the rooms, they “saw nothing there in the way of school furniture except a few old school desks of the very oldest kind and a small black board.”  Sister Victor continued, “this father must have queer ideas of education,” if these were the only supplies he thought necessary.

The local people soon began to sense the tension between the Sisters and the priest.  Just four days after their arrival, Sister Victor wrote, “these poor people have my heartfelt sympathy.  They seem so glad to have us here and so much afraid we will not stay.” Although their time among the people of Belen was brief, the Sisters quickly grew to love the place.  When the Sisters first anticipated they might be called away from Belen, they mused, “we have worked so hard getting things cleaned up and straightened what if we should not stay after all.  After the way the priest has acted I should be glad were it not for those poor people.“

Sr. M. Stella Tompkins in habit
Undated photo of Sister M. Stella Tompkins.  LHC Archives

Don Phillipi, one of the wealthy patrons who worked to make the Sisters feel welcome and to ensure they had everything they needed, explained how the people felt when he discovered the Sisters would be leaving by order of their Mother Superior.  He told Sister Victor “Oh well, they have waited patiently to get Sisters and now to have them and lose them is too much. They would do anything possible to keep you. I tried to do my share, and I am willing to do more. They have been building castles in the air since the Sisters came and now it’s all over.”  Sister Victor elaborates in the annals, saying “I told him we regretted it very much, and appreciated his kindness and that of the people, but the unacceptable way in which the priest had acted would make it impossible for us to stay.”

On Friday, October 5th, the sixth day in Belen, Mr. Goebel, another patron, went to speak with the Sisters on behalf of the local people.  He explained that “they sent me…because they are going to send a petition to the Archbishop asking for another priest and they want you Sisters back; would you be willing to come back?”  The Sisters answered diplomatically, saying they would be happy to return if they were ordered back by their Superior. The people of Belen evidently did write to the Archbishop, as Father Francisco Gatignol was succeeded by Father Juan Anthony Picard in 1901.  Although the Sisters of Loretto did not return, Father Gatignol was successful in bringing the Sisters of Mercy to teach the children of Belen. Father Picard continued this work and was active on the school board and worked closely with the Sisters of Mercy.

The Sisters of Loretto left Belen on Saturday, October 6th, 1900, just one week after arriving.  Ironically, even their departure from Belen did not go according to plan.   The Sisters booked tickets from Belen to Socorro for the early morning. The train was to leave at 1:14AM from the station.  Don Phillipi offered to send his carriage to bring the Sisters to the station, and they gratefully accepted. As the time came for the driver to pick them up, however, there was no sign of the carriage or the driver.  Sr. Victor wrote, “Time wore on till we began to get nervous. We went out on the front porch, it was almost as bright as day, but no sign of anyone coming to take us.” As the Sisters wondered what had become of the carriage, they began to think of alternatives.  When attempting to find and wake the driver at Don Phillipi’s house did not work, the Sisters needed a new plan. Sr. Victor notes, “It struck me all at once that perhaps he thought we were going to Santa Fe and that train does not go till 4:25. I mentioned then to the Sisters and we all agreed that it would be better to strike out and walk, and so we did.  We walked mighty fast too as we feared we would not get there in time.” Thankfully, the Sisters did arrive in time to catch their train, and several of the local people came out to say goodbye and wish them safe travel.  

As the annals come to a close, Sister Victor writes, “the train pulled out and we left Belen behind.  We walked into it and walked out of it. Adios Belen.  We were there just one week.  I wonder what next.”

Loretto Heritage Center

Loretto Heritage Center

The Loretto Heritage Center includes both an Archive and a Museum where the 200-year history of the Sisters of Loretto and the 40-year history of the Loretto Community are documented in paper, artifacts and richly interpretive exhibits. Its knowledgeable staff offer assistance and information to those wishing to learn more about Loretto and its history.
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