Running Off to the Convent, Part One
By Susanna Pyatt
Marcia, the Heritage Center assistant, discovered an intriguing story while processing the personnel files of the three Rogers sisters. Sister Elvira, Sister Benedicta, and Sister Casilda Rogers had only basic documents in their respective files, providing just the standard brief outlines of their lives. That is, except for lengthy narratives each sister wrote in the 1920s recounting her conversion to Catholicism and her difficult journey to become a Sister of Loretto.
These three sisters were born into a large Protestant family in the 1880s. Their mother, Augusta Ott Rogers, was from Germany and their father, Frank, was born in Illinois. Augusta and Frank had at least nine children between 1880 and 1904: George, Frank Jr., Jewel, Pearl, Ruby, Drake, Coral, Emerald, and Diamond. Coral died at age four, while the remaining eight children lived to adulthood. The family moved around during their childhood, living in South Dakota, Minnesota, Kansas, Missouri, and Iowa. By 1905, as Jewel, Pearl, and Ruby reached the final years of their schooling, the family relocated to Pueblo, Colorado.
Frank and Augusta searched for good schools for their children in Pueblo. Impressed by a neighboring Protestant girl who attended the Pueblo Loretto Academy, the parents decided to enroll Jewel, Pearl, and Ruby in this school run by the Sisters of Loretto. Drake was enrolled in a school run by the Sisters of Charity, and Emerald and Diamond were also enrolled at Loretto Academy as they came of age.
Though they supported the schools, Frank and Augusta were decidedly opposed to their children converting to Catholicism. As for them taking religious vows, according to Sister Casilda’s account, Frank told his children “he would rather see us dead than to see us in Religion. And if we went, we would go dead.” As the Rogers sisters were increasingly drawn to Catholicism and to vocations as Sisters of Loretto, lack of consent from their parents and fear of violence by their father forced the young women to hide their feelings and plans.
Each of the three narratives outlines the sisters’ individual senses of being drawn to the Catholic faith and religious life. For Jewel (Sister Elvira), it began simply with a desire to attend Loretto Academy. Once there, her anti-Catholic prejudices were challenged by meeting the Sisters, including one teacher who had converted from the Baptist faith. “I was astounded,” Sister Elvira wrote in her later narrative. “I was under the false impression that only poor, ignorant, deluded souls ever embraced the Catholic Religion.” Through the instruction and friendship of the Sisters, she felt increasingly called to conversion and taking religious vows.
For Pearl (Sister Benedicta), the notion of conversion first struck her when she mentioned she liked the character of Charity in a play because she carried a cross, and an Academy teacher remarked “You should be a Catholic if you like crosses.” Sister Benedicta wrote in her narrative, “From that moment my fate was sealed. I had not realized until then that I could be a child of the Catholic Church and my love for the cross revealed it.”
Ruby (Sister Casilda) was drawn to Religious life when she first encountered two nuns on the street at age 13. Their interaction was brief, but according to Sister Casilda’s account, after that she said to herself, “When I am big, I want to be a Sister.”
As they continued to attend Catholic schools, the growing urge to be baptized and become “practical Catholics” became a family affair for the siblings – but one kept secret from their parents, as it was a source of high tension. The three eldest sisters independently approached the Mother Superior at Loretto Academy for catechetical instruction, which they received. The two youngest Rogers sisters began learning their prayers and attending Benediction at the Academy with their siblings, though regularly attending Mass was not possible without their father suspecting their activities. Drake made rosaries for himself and each sister, carving pieces of old combs into beads and crucifixes and stringing them on wire. At home, the siblings would secretly study their catechism books in the early morning and say prayers before a makeshift altar in their locked bedroom. In these ways, they were able to quietly grow in their Catholic faith.