Immaculate Conception Academy
The Immaculate Conception Academy was a preparatory school and academy. In the 24 years this school existed, it provided an education from the ninth through the 14th grades for several hundred young women, both Catholic and Protestant, from communities in Nebraska, as well as from Colorado and Iowa.
For more than thirty years, a Catholic boarding school and academy for young women existed in Hastings. In fact, there were two schools, one superseding the other. The first one, known as the Academy of the Visitation, included the usual course of study in the primary, intermediate, and academic departments, according to the Hastings Independent Tribune of August 23, 1895. The school functioned for six years. The second one, the Immaculate Conception Academy, was a preparatory school and academy. In the 24 years this school existed, it provided an education from the ninth through the 14th grades for several hundred young women, both Catholic and Protestant, from communities in Nebraska, as well as from Colorado and Iowa.
The original school had its beginnings in 1889 when Thomas Farrell, a leading Catholic layman in community, transferred a ten-acre tract at Pine and 14th street to the Sisters of the Visitation, an order whose Mother House was in Chicago. Construction began immediately, and the building was opened on January 6, 1890. The three-story structure was of Colorado red sandstone from Thomas Farrell's quarries, with ground dimensions of 80 by 184 feet. The east wing was the convent for the Sisters in charge of the school, and the west wing was for the accommodation of students and the reception of visitors. A ten-foot high wooden fence surrounded the school. A newspaper story in later years said that the entire construction cost had amounted to $100,000.
The first students were received at the academy on February 5, 1890, and the classes began. The August 23, 1895, Tribune said that "In the musical department instruction will be given in vocal music and upon the harp, piano, guitar and mandolin; in the art department in oil, water colors and china painting. Lessons will also be given in all kinds of needlework. French and German will be taught by the natural method." A brochure published in 1891 by the Queen City Land Company said that students were also taught bookkeeping, typewriting, stenography, telegraphy, and "other accomplishments not taught in ordinary schools," adding that "the Sisters' academy is neither a convent nor a nunnery. It is a girls' home for instruction. Girls at this institution are free from temptation and evil influences."
There are no records about enrollment figures at the academy, but presumably there were several dozen students, at least, each year the school was in operation.
Some pupils were boarding students from communities which did not have high schools. Although school districts had been organized throughout Nebraska, the population was still so sparse that few towns and villages in the northern and western regions, especially, had four-year high schools. Education there stopped in the eighth or tenth grade, perhaps, and parents who wished their children to have full high school education had to send the youngsters away from home. Boarding schools, particularly those with strict supervision, which meant church-affiliated ones, were necessary in those years in the development of the state.
Protestant academies, including those at Franklin, Fairfield, Crete, and even at Hastings College, were for both boys and girls. Many families hesitated to send 14-year-old daughters to non-segregated schools, and although there was a rigid cleavage, between Catholics and Protestants, some Protestant parents decided that exposing their daughters to an alien religion was a lesser evil than having them in contact with unknown boys. Most of the students at the Academy of the Visitation and later the Immaculate Conception Academy were Catholics, but there were some Protestant ones among them.
Some pupils were day students from Hastings, who took the horse drawn streetcar which went up Pine Avenue and stopped at the entrance to the school. J. C. Fergus was the driver of one of the streetcars; his daughter, Mrs. Emma Davenport, recalls that occasionally the car would jump the tracks and passengers would have to disembark to help get the car back on the track.
The 1890s were years of drought, heat, crop failures and bank closings. All institutions on the Great Plains were in precarious financial condition. After the order had paid the initial $10,000 toward the construction of the school, it could pay no more nor could it pay the interest on the mortgage. In 1896 the Visitation Academy was forced to close. The Sisters abandoned the property on December 1, 1896. However two, Sister Margaret and Sister Anastasia, left the order and remained in Hastings to spend the rest of their lives as nurses in the community.
For a dozen years, from 1896 to 1908, the building, located at Pine and 14th streets, was unoccupied save for a family that moved in as caretakers for the creditors. After the drought and depression were over by the turn of the century, businessmen in Hastings, Catholic and Protestant alike, began to consider what use could be made of the structure. It seemed a pity not to utilize so fine a building; surely it could serve some useful function. A building so large, subject to deterioration if it were left unused and unrepaired, could prove damaging to property values. Rats were infesting the building, the roof was leaking. The building had cost in the vicinity of $100,000 when it was built, and each succeeding year of non-use depreciated its usability and value.
In 1908 Bishop Thomas Bonacum of Lincoln and the Sisters of the Order of St. Dominic, known as the Dominican Sisters, Convent of St. Catharine of Siena in Springfield, Ky., made an offer to the Commercial Club of Hastings. If Hastings would raise $8,000 and turn over the old convent building, the Sisters would repair the building and establish a school for young women. Father William McDonald, local parish priest, and C.E. Higinbotham, president of the Commercial Club, began the job of soliciting subscriptions, and by January 6, 1909, reported that the necessary funds were available. A crew of laborers, directed by John Frantz, began work immediately, and a report in the Hastings Daily Republican of April 19, 1909, said that "the west half . . . is already completed . . . and will be ready for occupancy soon."
Mother Magdalene arrived from St. Catharine, Ky., on April 30 to supervise the final preparations. Eight Sisters arrived mid-summer to scrub and equip the building, investing about $30,000 in the renovation. The west half of the building was the convent and the east half was the school. By September, everything was in order and registration took place on September 14. "The Sisters had planned for an initial enrollment of about 75 pupils," the Hastings Daily Tribune of September 15, 1909, reported. "Facilities were provided for a larger number, but when the registration passed the 100 mark, it was necessary to send out for more desks for emergency use until others could be obtained."
By the next year there were 125 students enrolled, both boarding and day. Although there was considerable emphasis on the study of art and music, the school had laboratories for physics and chemistry and "a new and thoroughly equipped gymnasium," the Tribune of June 18, 1910, reported. Miss Marguerite Higgins of Boston was the physical education instructor, teaching "Swedish and German American systems of gymnastics . . . basketball . . . social, aesthetic and folk dancing, fencing, club swinging . . . (and a) special corrective department for children with spinal curvature, round shoulders, dropping head." In later years, tennis courts were added.
There were three members of the first graduating class in 1911; they were Anne Huston O'Brien, Eulalia Kerrigan Daugherty and Leonore Walsh. The second graduating class, in 1912, had seven members: Irene Sheehy Linegar, Mary Sullivan Meisenbach, Lena Carney and her twin sister, Tony, Sister Rosa Lima, Clara Kernan McLaughlin, and Helen Davidson Fleming. At that time, the school had 12 grades; the two junior college grades were added in 1925.
The annual Educational Directories of the Nebraska Department of Public Instruction indicate that sister Mary Louis was the principal until 1916; Sister Aloysius, 1916-1917; Sister Mary Virginia, 1918-1924; Sister Eleanor, 1924-1926; Sister Rose de Lima, a graduate of ICA, 1926-1927; Sister Clara, 1927-1928 and 1929-1930; Sister Henrietta, 1928-1929; and Sister Mary Rose, 1930-1931. Among the teachers were Sister Bonaventure, Sister Helen Marie, Sister Columbo; Sister Thersa in music; Sister Geraldine in gymnastics; and Sister Veronica in art. During the 1920's, there were usually four or five faculty members.
During the early years the academy was in existence, there were about 125 boarding students at a time, coming from Omaha, Lincoln and towns north and west of Hastings, many of them from communities which did not yet have twelve-grade high school facilities. The girls lived on the third, or top, floor of the academy, either in large barracks-like dormitory rooms, or in smaller single or double rooms, which were usually saved for the senior girls. Regina Siren, a day student for most of her years at the academy, was a boarding student her senior year and lived in one of the small single rooms.
The schedule for the boarding students called for them to arise at 6:30 a.m., attend Mass at 7, then have breakfast and be ready for classes which started at 9 a.m.
The girls were carefully supervised; daily walks were part of the schedule, the girls walking two-by-two down Academy Avenue, sometimes over to the cemetery on Elm Avenue, always chaperoned by one of the Sisters. The mail of the boarding students was carefully scrutinized, particularly that from home-town boy friends, and some of the students went to great lengths to arrange mail-drops with friends in town. May Finch Matter recalls that when she was a Hastings College student, an academy student from her home town became effusive when she figured out a way that May could receive letters from the boy-back-home which May could then carry to the intended recipient at the academy.
During the period of the 1910's, the girls wore school uniforms of white middy blouses and pleated navy blue skirts. At a later date, according to pictures in the annuals of 1925 and 1926, they wore long-sleeved navy blue dresses with white Peter Pan collars and long satin bow-ties. For Mass, they wore chapel veils or mantillas.
The numbers of day students varied from time to time, but usually there were not quite as many of them as there were boarding students. Included among them, particularly among the lower graders, were a number of boys, Joseph Kealy, Leo Coffey, Mark Cantwell and Paul Kernan among them. At the first sight of the nuns, many of the boys were startled, Clara McLaughlin remembers. "And the Sisters were dumbfounded by the boys. They were rowdy and boisterous; they rode horses straight at the Sisters, they ran the bells, they were beyond the knowledge and experience of the sweet-tempered nuns," she said. But eventually both groups began to feel comfortable in co-existence, and the boys learned to appreciate the Sisters for the training and education they received from them. Few boys were ever graduated from the academy, however, transferring instead to the public school.
After 1912, there were no further elementary classes at the academy, for a parish school, St. Cecilia's, was established in town. The teaching staff were Dominican Sisters who lived in the Convent part of the Immaculate Conception Academy. When boarding students in elementary grades were in residence at the academy, they went into town with the Sisters who taught at St. Cecilia's, taking their class work there.
The commencement schedule for 1915, reported in the Tribune of May 25, included the following events: May 26, Class Day; May 27, junior-senior banquet at the Clarke Hotel; May 28, class play at the Kerr Opera House; May 29, senior oration and Ivy Planting; May 30, Solemn High Mass and Baccalaureate; May 31, graduation exercises at the Kerr Opera House, Right Rev. Henry J. Tihon, Bishop of Lincoln, giving the address. There were 13 graduates. The play that year was "Every-Maid," which at the last minute had to be held at the academy "because of rain." Apparently the leaky roof at the Kerr Opera House was worse than usual that year.
Although the course of study included standard academic subjects, the academy was especially strong in its instruction in both art and music. There were special classrooms on the first floor for each of these subjects. Sister Veronica, the art teacher, was an accomplished painter and in addition to teaching fine arts also taught craft-style art, for the school had its own kiln for firing ceramics. The music department had a gramophone on which students could listen to records, and every time there was a opera or some other outstanding musical program at the Kerr Opera House downtown, academy students attended, under close chaperonage. From time to time, the music department presented operettas. Newspaper clippings and items in the annuals of 1925 and 1926 indicate that music students from the academy participated in early-day radio broadcasts at station KFKX.
In time traditional events developed, the most elegant of them the crowning of the May Queen. The occasion provided an opportunity for the physical education students to present interpretative dances, for music students to sing and play instrumental numbers, and for the art students to show their color skills in the costuming of the pageant. The May fete was held in the latter part of May on the lawn in front of the convent: among May queens honored - they were chosen by the entire student body - were Helen Swigle and Florence Kealy.
From the early 1920s the students published an annual, The Schoolmate. The historical society has copies from 1925 and 1926. Unfortunately they do not give any indication how many preceded them.
Students were given academy diplomas at graduation exercises, and most of the girls were also given teaching certificates and/or letters of admission to the University. In fact by 1918 the headlines in tribune referred to the school as the Catholic Normal. According to Nebraska State Education Directories the academy was an approved normal training school from 1911 through 1931; and from the school year 1925-26 onward, graduates were accredited automatically for entrance to the University of Nebraska.
The 1925 Immaculate Conception annual lists a total of 52 students, nine of them members of the newly-opened junior college. There were 15 seniors in the high school division. The annual of 1926 lists a total of 38 students, and the 1927 annual 32 students. Although for the last dozen years of its existence, the school was not large in numbers, it maintained a busy schedule for academic, cultural and religious activities. There were retreats, special church celebrations, and church related social organizations within the school.
Disaster struck on May 8, 1930, when a tornado swept across Hastings, and when the winds died down, the Sisters discovered that the third floor of the building was almost entirely demolished. Mercifully, no one was injured. Clearing away the rubble, the Sisters made plans to rebuild, "The gabled room and top story of the building will be removed and a flat roof will be put on." The Tribune of July 12th reported. The interior of the building was redesigned to accommodate the necessary 17 classrooms, the library, reception room and offices in the now two-story building. And the Sisters discovered that there was enough salvaged brick to build a long needed gymnasium. The 30 by 65 feet building included a stage at one end with dressing rooms flanking it.
But the depression that was to flatten the economy of the country in the 1930s had already begun. Money for tuition to send girls away to school was no longer as plentiful as it had been in earlier years. With fewer and fewer boarding students, and less tuition money coming in, and with a new debt to cope with, the Dominican Order reluctantly decided to close the academy. On May 9, 1932 Bishop Kucera of Lincoln announced that the buildings and grounds had been sold to the Crosier Fathers. The graduating class of 1932 was the last one. The building that had been a girls school would now become a college and seminary for men. Some of the Sisters transferred to St. Cecilia's school where tenth, eleventh and twelfth grades were added.
During the years the Immaculate Conception Academy had provided quality education for upwards of a thousand young women. It had served its purpose.
Some graduates went into religious vocations. Sister Leonardo, formerly Clara Kline, a graduate with the class of 1913, returned to the academy as the dean of the junior college as soon as it was established in 1925. Among the other religious were Sister Theodore Kline, Sister Mary Louise Helmann, Sister Ernestine Choquette, Sister Francis Kline, and Sister Celestine Waltham.
All the school records seem to have disappeared, being neither at the Mother House in St. Catharine, with the Dominican Sisters who still provide educational instruction at St. Cecilia's, nor in any parish nor diocesan records in Hastings or Lincoln.
Sources: Historical News Volume 6, No. 4 and 6; Volume 7, No. 1; and Volume 22, No. 4.