Times Past: Mother Praxedes Carty - Bawnboy builder nun
Historian Jonathan Smyth's latest edition of Times Past looks at a holy woman from Bawnboy who was responsible for the construction of an all girls school in Texas...
The Spring 2019 edition of the Loretto Magazine produced in St. Louis, Missouri, carried the by-line ‘140 years of educational excellence and care for people in El Paso'. What many of the city’s citizens may not realise, is that it was a nun from Cavan who, through her devotion to God, helped to shape the order's presence in the region.
An article on the Loretto’s legacy by Christina Manweller was published in the magazine that Spring. In the 1920s, Mother Praxedes Carty came to El Paso, Texas, to ‘oversee construction of a new all-girls school’.
The Order of the Sisters of Loretto were founded in 1812 by three women - Mary Rhodes, Ann Havern and Christina Stuart - under the stewardship of a Belgian-born priest, the Rev Charles Nerinckx, in Kentucky. The group were also known as the ‘Friends of Mary at the Foot of the Cross' and they should not be confused with the ‘Sisters of Loreto’ of which Mother Teresa was a member.
In 1854, Susan Carty (later to be known as Mother Praxedes Carty) was born, in Bawnboy, Co Cavan. She was a daughter of Mark and Ellen Brady and was one of 11 siblings born to the couple. In ‘Only One Heart: The Story of a Pioneer Nun in America’, by Sr Patricia Jean, SL, published in 1963, the life story of Susan Carty is told in a gentle conversational manner.
‘Tall, (with) gold in her heart,’ Susan is described as ‘one of Mark’s and Ellen’s eleven to become Lorettine Sister Praxedes in 1874 in Loretto, Kentucky.’
The story follows her early life in Cavan to her ‘post-Civil-War prairie schooner days’ and then to the American ‘pre-jet days of 1933’.
Recently, an article was published in Ireland’s Own about Sister Praxedes and the work that she carried out. In the article, Melanie Ward states that, by 1874, Susan had decided to take ‘her vows as a Novice with the Sisters of Loretto at Kentucky on July 16’ and took the name ‘Sister Praxedes’.
However, Sister Praxedes soon became ill with tuberculosis and, on medical advice, was sent to Sante Fe, New Mexico. While there, she used her time wisely and learned to speak Spanish and was then placed in charge of a school at Bernalillo. Within two years, she was elevated to the position of ‘Mother’ Praxedes. Later, Mother Praxedes took charge of the Loretto Academy in Las Cruces in 1880.
The Loretto Academy at Las Cruces began in 1870 was a Catholic School for young women. The area had a small impoverished rural community with a population of 1,300 people, many of whom were girls of school-going age. One of the Academy’s aims was to help with the Americanisation of the New Mexican people.
On her arrival at the school, Mother Praxedes discovered that the school building was not finished and, adding to its problems, the place was in severe debt. She soon began to clear the debt through fairs, bazaars and the introduction of ‘tuition fees’. Parents who refused to pay their school fees were taken to court by the pro-active Cavan nun. To her credit, and through endless perseverance, she cleared all of the outstanding loans.
In 1886, a local tax inspector summoned the sisters to court over a piece of land which, in his opinion, they were using to earn extra money for themselves when it could have been used to benefit the whole community. In fact, the ground was planted as a vegetable garden to feed the nuns and the people who came to board at the convent. Mother Praxedes successfully defended her order's charitable reputation in court.
To this day, she is remembered by the people of Las Cruces for having rebuilt the city’s Catholic church. Incidentally, Las Cruces is also known as ‘the City of the Crosses’ and geographically and economically it lies at the centre of the Mesilla Valley. The surrounding landscape is dominated by the Organ Mountains and is a popular destination for tourists.
Mother Praxedes served as Superior General from 1896 until 1922, when she was appointed the local superior at St Joseph’s Academy, El Paso. During her time as Superior General, she realised that space was limited and in 1915 she began to look for a new location. The site she chose was in an area without access to the city and her detractors referred to her project as ‘Praxedes Folly’.
The architect, Gus Trost, and builder, Joseph Morgan, produced plans for the new building and they received directions directly from Mother Praxedes as to how she wanted the plans drawn. The El Paso Museum of History records that: ‘The design was very much influenced by her vision and preference based upon architecture she'd seen during a visit to Tasco, Mexico. She also insisted that the buildings should face south in a welcoming gesture to encompass both Texas and Mexico to reflect the bond she envisioned between the two countries. It is said by some that the structure itself is a symbol of arms outstretched to El Paso and Mexico.'
The new school was named the Loretto Academy and opened in September 1923. The original premises, St Joseph’s Academy, remained in use as a day school and as a hall of residence for the sisters. A year later, the cornerstone of the new chapel was laid, and it was decided to name the building in honour of St Joseph. The completion of the project was to take 14 years in total and required a considerable amount of fundraising.
During a fundraising effort in St Louis, in 1931, the dynamic nun fell and broke her hip, which unfortunately, had a debilitating effect on her health for the rest of her life. However, her time in St. Louis was spent fruitfully and she successfully secured $80,000 to assist with the completion of the school project. Two years later, Mother Praxedes died, on December 16, in El Paso, Texas and her funeral mass was celebrated by her long-time friend Bishop Schuler.