Loretto Community Visit, Day 2: the founding and the future

Day 2 was dedicated to learning the history and story of this place, particularly the stories of the founding and foundresses of this community. Naturally, in the end, this also became a day about the community’s future: how they are imagining and living into a new stage of religious life.

To start, I walked into the Archives that morning, greeted by their staff with a few pamphlets that were left for me: Courage, American: A sketch of the life of the Lorettine foundressAn Army of Peace: the story of the Sisters of Loretto at the Foot of the Cross and With Captain Dogwood: A Life of Charles Nerinckx. I also looked through their book collections – finding a book from 1929 on Great American Foundresses, one of the few books I’ve seen name and celebrate foundresses specifically. Then I found the books published by Loretto Sisters over the years – commentaries on the evolution of religious life, books of poetry, and creative zines with comics and spiritual insight. A few that piqued my interest: “Toward a Spirituality for Global Justice: A Call to Kinship” by Elaine Prevallet; “Breaking through the Stained Glass Ceiling: Women Religious Leaders in their Own Words” edited by Maureen Fielder; and “The Porch of Possibility: Poems” by Cicily Jones, SL.

After spending time in the archives, I went to meet with Sr. Kathleen, in one of her favorite rooms at Loretto: The Thomas Merton Center for Creative Exchange. As she shared with me, Merton had developed this idea of a center for creative exchange, a place where people from all philosophical and religious backgrounds could come together for engaging with one another respectfully and creatively. After his death, his friend and former Loretto leader Mary Luke Tobin opened up a Center for Creative Exchange in her house’s basement in Denver, CO, hosting events and gatherings. Then the Center moved to the motherhouse where it’s lived for many years now – housing a collection of works by Merton, works about Merton, and many beautiful photographs and relics from his life.

This is the setting in which Kathleen walked me through the history of Loretto. Using coins and jolly ranchers, because, as she said, she’s used to teaching kids and using visual aids, she told me the story of how Loretto came to be through Catholics from Maryland settling in Kentucky in the late 18thand early 19thcentury. Mary Rhodes was one of these Catholics from Maryland, and she wanted to teach her brothers’ kids in a school. She taught them in a cabin, and soon other kids joined, looking for schooling, and then two other women joined her as teachers. The need for education grew, and the three women also wanted to grow in their own piety. Working with a local priest, he helped them to establish their own order – a distinctly American order not rooted in a community from Europe, but starting with these three women. After they were officially recognized in April 1812, within a few months three more women joined them.  They were now able to elect the first leader – Mother Superior – and they voted in the youngest woman in the group: Ann Rhodes, who at the time was just 19. (What a story to learn on International Women’s Day, huh?)

While there is much more to the story to be explored in a deeper format down the road, the thrust of the story is typical of other Foundress narratives I have heard: a woman or women noticed a need in their community, they joined with other women, they committed to each other and to that work, and they created the response necessary to the need in community through their own creation of community.

Here on the property, they have a diorama of this origin story. It’s labeled: “The Three Foundresses of the Sisters of Loretto – 1812 – Mary Rhodes, Christina Stuart, Nancy Havern.” The diorama shows the three women teaching children in different settings, with backdrops including their seal of the community, the Rules of the School, and finally a map of the “Holy Land of Kentucky.”

This is another fascinating aspect of this place – there seems to be holiness infused into the land. After the Sisters of Loretto began in 1812, within 30 years the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth were created, then an order of Dominican Sisters. Ultimately it was the Sisters of Loretto that sold Gethsemani to a group of Trappist monks, which is where Thomas Merton spent his life. This small area in the middle of rural Kentucky is home to several religious orders that have existed for the last 200 years, formed tens of thousands of people in religious life, and collectively started thousands of schools, hospitals, and non-profit organizations across the country and world.

Mary Rhodes was the first one.  Among this overflowing energy of commitment to faith and service in this region, she was the first to say yes to a calling she felt. She was the first in this area to ask what the needs were, and how she could serve. Her legacy lives on today in and is as forward thinking as ever; the Loretto Life states: “We strive to educate and be educated in order to face the challenges of the 21stcentury and beyond.”

The legacy of the founding women lives on today through the many Sisters and co-members that continue to respond to the signs of the times in creative ways, to challenge unjust structures, and to build community as support structure to get work done.

My day unfolded to reveal ever enriching details to the story of the founding of the community, and its continuous evolution.  After lunch, I sat in the Church with Sr. Antoinette, learning about the history of the land and the buildings, receiving her detailed wisdom about the particulars of place and people.  Then I had a tour through the Heritage Museum with the Archivists, two young women who have both started working here both in the last year. These two young women, neither Catholic, are immersing themselves in the story of this community, and preserving these stories for future generations to learn from.

My favorite exhibits in the museum are the ones focused on justice and change. One is dedicated to Sr. Mary Luke Tobin, the leader of the community during the renewal years, who was one of fifteen women present at Vatican II in the 1960s. She also was elected to serve in leadership beyond Loretto, in the Conference of Major Superiors of Women Religious, which became known as the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). Tobin, as a close friend of Merton, also brought him to the motherhouse to speak with novices, and even got him to give his opinion on the early drafts of the community’s emerging new document “I Am the Way.”

Another exhibit is on the School of Americas protests, where Sisters have consistently showed up to advocate for non-violence in the face of military aggression. One very apt pin, in their collection of activist pins, says “Pro Future.” This is a political stance that can sum up many social concerns women religious dedicate themselves to today.

Finally, the museum has a giant globe-type-structure you can step into to imagine the future of religious life. There are quotes all around:

  • “I believe the future will surprise us with its beauty when we thought all good was gone.”
  • “We need the skills of open listening, trustful sharing and patient waiting as we walk into the future, so that our Loretto journey can unfold and shape as we go.”
  • “Our future is already here and our mission is to be conscious of it and begin living in it.”
  • “Something new is waiting to be born. We are called to be midwives of a new form of religious life, a model of the single sacred community that is the Universe. Not only is the human sacred. The entire universe is sacred! We are all kin.”
  • “The greatest thanks we can give for our past is to take responsibility for our future.”
  • “No matter what our future holds, I think Loretto values will endure through those whose lives have been touched by us through the years.”
  • “It’s natural to ask: ‘What new ministries are we being called to?’ But I think there is a crucial preceding question: ‘What new understanding of mission is being called forth from us?’”
  • “I am not good at dreaming up the future. However, I believe that we are meant to be a stable rock, a trusted group within the Church and society that people can count on during times of doubt and confusion.”
  • “I hope Loretto becomes a microcosm of what we would like the world to be—inclusive, egalitarian, progressive, joyful, ingenious, just, compassionate, authentic, courageous, flexible and loving—a world worthy of our creator.


While museums might be natural places for audacious dreaming for the future and its possibilities, the spirit of openness is present far beyond the museum as well. Over supper with two Sisters this evening, they casually talked about how religious life as they know it is over. Citing Diarmuid O’Murchu’s Religious Life in the 21stCentury, one Sister said that most religious institutions die after 200 years anyways, so the time is ripe for a new form to take shape.

In the meantime of that new form, the current form is an incredible gift. Tonight the community hosted two professional musicians for a private concert held in the Church, a tradition they’ve had for decades, and we enjoyed wine and cheese with them afterward in the novitiate living room. The daily rhythms of life here inspire groundedness and connection, stability and growth, curiosity and compassion. I could not hope for better midwives than communities like the Lorettos to help usher in whatever comes next in religion and spirituality.


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