The Bishop of Nashville, Rt. Rev. J. Whelan, in the early spring had applied to St. Mary’s asking for Sisters who would conduct an Academy for the higher education of girls and young ladies…Catholics in the diocese were neither numerous nor wealthy, yet the good Bishop deemed such an institution a necessary adjunct—one that would help to spread the Faith far. He wished deep religious instruction to go on apace with the studies and accomplishments which Southerners loved so well and earnestly sought for their daughters…Four Sisters were selected for the new foundation. (Mother Frances Walsh; Annals of St. Cecilia Congregation, 1860-1881)
While the Dominican Order was founded in the thirteenth century, the Congregation of St. Cecilia began in 1860 as the dream of Nashville’s second bishop, the Right Reverend James Whelan. The Bishop, a Dominican himself, wanted sisters to “conduct an academy for higher education of girls and young ladies” with an emphasis on music and the fine arts. He petitioned the sisters at St. Mary’s, Somerset, Ohio to send four sisters to begin the work. Mother Frances Walsh, one of the four foundresses, wrote of his intentions stating that “the bishop wished deep religious instruction to go on apace with the studies and accomplishments which Southerners loved so well and earnestly sought for their daughters.”
Sister Columba Dittoe, Sister Lucy Harper, Sister Philomena McDonough, and Sister Frances Walsh arrived in Nashville on August 17 after a long trip by stagecoach, steamboat and train. They received a warm welcome and set immediately to the considerable work of transforming a building into a convent and school.
The young academy was named after the third century martyr, St. Cecilia, patroness of music. Rather significantly, Cecilia appears several times in the early days of the Dominican Order. It was on the feast of St. Cecilia in the year 1206 that St. Dominic made his first establishment: nine women religious were given the white woolen tunic and black mantle of the Order. This establishment provided the first graces of the Order and testified to the emerging band of preachers the primacy and power of prayer.
Such a sense of priority was necessary, as the four pioneers in Nashville met the challenges which face active contemplatives. They gracefully mixed the life of the religious with that of an educator. The sisters taught the regular curriculum plus music and art for the first school year. Besides teaching, they were prefects of the boarding students after school hours, did housework and managed the business affairs of the community.
According to the annals of the community written in 1881, the sisters took seriously the education of their students in the faith, providing them with instruction, and opportunities to receive the sacraments, so that they might “meet and bear life’s tribulations. Lessons inculcating patience, forbearance, forgiveness, and the other virtues were quietly instilled into the minds of all, Catholic and non-Catholic” (Annals 14). Such virtue was needed as the tribulations of war soon shook the South.
Building commenced shortly after the sisters arrived. As work got underway, so too did the war between the states. The architect, a Union sympathizer, disappeared part way through the project. In spite of almost insurmountable obstacles the building was completed on June 1, 1862.
From the roof of the newly completed building, sisters and students watched the drama as the Union army took control of the state house on Capital Hill. Federal troops surrounded the convent as the Battle of Nashville raged. While cannons boomed from morning until night, the sisters prayed. On April 7, 1865, Lee surrendered.
John Connelly, Davidson County Historian writes of this period:
The students of St. Cecilia had but to look from their windows to see the havoc this cruel war had wrought. A stretch of lovely woodland in front of the Academy had disappeared. The glorious forest, God’s handiwork, had been converted into barren waste. The battle ax spared no tree. The garden spot of the State had changed its appearance into uncultivated waste.
St. Cecilia Academy remained open throughout the war but soon felt its devastation when the tuition they were anticipating did not come. The South was in severe financial distress.
Reflecting on these early years in her annals, Mother Frances Walsh wrote with conviction, “If, as the saints assure us, God marks with the cross, all the works He designs, then may this community rest assured that its origin is legitimate.”
While storm clouds continued to hang heavy over the new community, the fall of 1867 brought the hope of new life. St. Cecilia received her first postulant and a novitiate was started. But with the ruin of the plantation system the community struggled as regular sources of income (tuition and benefactions) quickly became irregular. Seven years after their arrival, the school and properties, severely in debt, were put up to public auction. On July 27, 1867 when the end looked to be in sight, Bishop Feehan, with the aid of friends, purchased the property for $20,300 and returned it to the community. He was once more to step forward on their behalf in the autumn of that same year. However, debt continued to accrue and concerns were expressed that St. Cecilia was a burden to the diocese. At this time a request for sisters was made for a new foundation at St. Dominic’s in Washington, D.C. As the decision was made to dissolve the community in Nashville, four sisters left to help with the cause in Washington. It was painful for them to think of leaving a work unfinished. The sisters who remained turned to Divine Providence and began an intense period of prayer. For thirty days a novena of Rosaries (the fifteen mysteries) were prayed and in the end the sisters, by an act of faith, chose to continue the school, pay off the debts and thereby preserve the community. Ironically, the foundation of active sisters in Washington never materialized.
In the summer of 1866, Nashville suffered one of the most serious of a number of cholera epidemics. Out of a population of twenty thousand, over eight hundred died in a six-week period. The sisters did what they could to nurse the sick. Mother Frances Walsh writes, “in every hut and cottage [of South Nashville] the white habit could be seen. The sisters trampled the dusty by-paths at intervals from early dawn until dark night closed upon them. Often worn out, and although nature demanded rest, they were called out in the still hours of the night.”
The sisters also assisted the sick in Memphis. It has been noted that within ten days twenty-five thousand people fled that city. Of the fifty sisters who remained as nurses, thirty died. Twelve years later, yellow fever infested West Tennessee and Chattanooga. In the midst of it all, the sisters proved themselves to be compassionate, self-sacrificing and hardworking.
In 1863, Rev. Joseph A. Kelly, O.P. acknowledged the need for an orphanage when three small homeless children appeared at the door of the cathedral residence. A suitable building was acquired, children seeking a secure environment were registered, and Dominicans from Somerset, Ohio were placed in charge. Within the first three months fourteen children were received.
As Confederate troops marched toward an occupied Nashville in December of 1864, a Union soldier, in the words of Sister Miriam Walsh, “hurriedly galloped up to the gates of the asylum and informed the sisters at the orphanage that they must leave the premises without delay, and seek for themselves and the orphans a place of greater safety, as the one they were occupying was liable at any moment to be riddled by shot and shell.” The two armies were about to converge. Sister Rose Marie writes, “Having no place to go, nor any conveyance, the sisters and children, terrified, watched as the Union army planted its guns between the orphanage and the city. At about midnight Father Kelly and Father John McDonald, a U.S. cavalry chaplain, drove up with an ambulance and some army wagons. By dawn the inhabitants of the orphanage and some of their belongings were at the cathedral. They were given the basement for a temporary home. As it turned out, however, the basement home was not so temporary, because the asylum was destroyed in the Battle of Nashville. After four weeks another home was found for them near Fort Negley.
In May of 1864, St. Mary’s Orphan Asylum became the charge of the Dominican Sisters. Ten years later it was officially affiliated with St. Cecilia Community. The numbers of orphans increased dramatically after the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878. (Sixty orphans were relocated to St. Mary’s from Memphis.)
In 1903, a larger stone structure was built on Harding Road with every “modern” convenience. Included was a working farm and playground. By 1935, Sister Miriam Walsh recounts, there were 88 children cared for at St. Mary’s.
Spiritual motherhood took on an added dimension for the sisters who through the years saw to the daily needs of large numbers of children. The year 1967 saw the end of an era when the community passed on the work to the Sisters of Charity.
In November of 1884 the community had made its last payment toward the debt covered by the diocese. Now, increases in the number of both sisters and students necessitated another building project and so the chapel and additional convent quarters were constructed in 1888. Funds were solicited from Mexico and Cuba.
While the Motherhouse in Nashville was "home" to all, by the turn of the century the sisters were teaching in schools throughout Tennessee in the cities of Memphis, Chattanooga, Winchester, and Clarksville. The community was growing, as was St. Cecilia Academy, so in 1904 a building project was completed. The project included additional rooms for the boarding students.
If, as the saints assure us, God marks with the cross all the works He designs, then may this community rest assured that its origin is legitimate. (Mother Frances Walsh; Annals of St. Cecilia Congregation, 1860-1881)