by Mary Jo Tesitor
WALSENBURG — On Sunday, May 1, the Benedictine Sisters of Benet Hill Monastery in Colorado Springs came to Walsenburg to celebrate the 50 Year Jubilee of the establishment of Benet Hill, daughter-house of the Atchison, Kansas motherhouse, Mount St. Scholastica.
Walsenburg and St. Mary hold a special place in the hearts of the community, since it marks their first foray into Colorado, more than 100 years ago. The story of their coming has become legendary in the community of religious sisters and in the Spanish Peaks Catholic community. A history of the parish written during the 1960’s by a forgotten student states, “Founded in 1869, [Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows] tried to establish a school in 1878. Father Gabriel Ussel, pastor from 1876 until his death 33 years later, made several attempts to start a school even before a church of adequate size was built.”
In August, 1878 a ten room house was purchased at a price of $200 from August Sporleder to be used as a convent and a campaign was begun to raise money for a school building. Then, on August 24, a heavy rain fell steadily for 12 hours. The Cucharas River flooded its banks, reducing to ruins the rectory, convent, and church. Only the Mass vestments were saved from the crumbling adobes. Funds were diverted to rebuild a church in a safer location. A pathetic entry in Father Ussel’s account book between October 10, 1876 and June 19, 1879 reads, “Income $354.75; expenses, $412.15.”
Bishop Joseph Machbeuf came to the aid of the struggling parish and assisted personally in the collection of money for the church reconstruction. The first step was the purchase of a site in the center of town from Miguel Leon on September 3, 1878 at a price of $80. A year later, a contract was signed, with Benjamin Arnold in charge of the work. Progress was slow because pledges remained unfulfilled. Work came to a halt when the contract ended on March 8, 1881, “apparently because of misunderstandings between Ussel and Arnold.” During the next year, Ussel made a desperate drive for funds, securing a loan which made possible the completion of a new church built to accommodate 150 people, located just east of the current church. Cost: $4,000.
Father Ussel never gave up hope of building a school. On Friday, June 21, 1889, he published in the local paper a notice which read, “The Catholic church contemplates the location of an important school in Walsenburg in the near future. The “World” is very desirous to see Walsenburg become a great educational center.” Most members of the parish, however, wanted their donations to be spent on the erection of a more adequate church, so the school waited. A campaign was launched in 1892 to raise funds for the erection of a brick building, much larger than the old one. By 1893, walls and roof were completed, but the financial panic that year halted work. The building was finished and dedicated July 1, 1900.
Father Ussel, who by now was lovingly known as the Patriarch of Cucharas, fell into a long illness. His death on October 17, 1909 was attended by Father Nicholas Bertrand and Father Eugene Lefebvre, who was to carry on his legacy. Upon his death, Father Ussel left the single largest donation toward the cost of constructing the school complex which was to bear his name. Father Lefebvre served a mere three years, but in 1912 accomplished the building of the Father Ussel’s dream at a cost of $25,000, most of which he personally solicited. Sadly, he did not live to see it filled with children. That honor went to Father John, B. Liciotti who came to Walsenburg in May of 1913.
The school now built, Father Liciotti appealed to Bishop Nicholas Matz to help him find teachers for the children of Walsenburg. Bishop Matz traveled to Atchison, KS to beg Mother Aloysia Northman of the Benedictine community to send sisters. Sister Aloysia was reluctant to send members of her community to a new mission. Bishop Matz said he would give her a few minutes to consider and went to the chapel to offer ten minutes of fervent prayer. She returned, having called the Council, and told him five teachers and a housekeeper had been chosen to go west. St. Mary School had teachers.
On January 3, 1914 the sisters arrived in Walsenburg: Sister Ethelreda Neyer, O.S.B, as Superior; Sister Mechtilde Stenger, Sister Humiliata Eccher, Sister Alma Brown, and Sister Adriana Stallbaumer as teachers; and Sister Cunningund Bescher as housekeeper. Soon, they were joined by Sister Louise Schneider and Sister Elfrida Brennan. Until their new convent was completed on October 1, 1914, the sisters rented a house across the street from the school. On opening day, 500 exuberant students filled the school. Sister Adriana, describing the first morning told of the rush for the door at the sound of the recess bell. Thinking she would enforce an orderly exit at noon, she stood firmly in front of the door, only to have her students scramble out through the windows.
The school reached its peak enrollment in 1921 with 831 students, necessitating the erection of the west wing in 1922. Sister Florence Feeney, who taught fifth grade, told of having had 80 pupils of 25 different nationalities, aged 10 to 25. Between 1926 and 1928, a high school building was constructed, requiring more Sisters, all willing to embrace the community of Walsenburg. More than 296 Benedictine Sisters were missioned in Walsenburg from 1914 through 1996, teaching and serving the communities of Aguilar, La Veta, and Gardner, as well. Their students became doctors, lawyers, teachers, religious, priests, and good citizens.
In 1971, facing financial difficulty and reduced enrollment, St. Mary High School graduated its last class of seniors. The elementary school remained in operation until 1996, with several Benedictines still teaching. If you or your family were touched by the Benedictine Sisters at St Mary, you can send your congratulations and wishes to: email@example.com or visit their website: www.benethillmonastery.org.
They are a treasure our community was blessed by for eight decades, women who instructed, formed and guided generations of citizens.