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9/14/2011 1:10:00 PM
With legacy of heroic nuns, Albany school marks 125 years
St. Mary School photos
Sister Flavia Stadler with students at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Academy in Albany, 1928.
St. Mary School photos
Sister Flavia Stadler with students at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Academy in Albany, 1928.
Native American students at their boarding school with the Benedictine Sisters of Albany, 1945.
Native American students at their boarding school with the Benedictine Sisters of Albany, 1945.

ALBANY — In 1952, St. Mary Parish purchased the Catholic school here from the Benedictine Sisters, who remained on as administrators and teachers. When the men of the parish went into the three-story Victorian convent and school to see what they had bought, they came out looking like a group of pall-bearers.

“How,” one man asked, “could these women sleep on broken-down army cots with wobbly springs and lumpy mattresses, and then get up, bright-eyed and cheerful, to spend another day in the classroom?” The parish immediately bought new beds, springs, and mattresses for the Sisters.

Originally known as Our Lady of Perpetual Help Academy, the school opened in 1886, a year after the establishment of the first and only Catholic parish in Albany. The pastor of the fledging parish, Father Louis Metayer, persuaded the spartan Benedictine Sisters of Mount Angel to found the institution. For more than a century, the Sisters served there, following their charism to "welcome all guests as Christ."  

This fall, St. Mary’s School is celebrating 125 years of service. To mark the milestone, a new logo captures what people here say is the school’s essence: faith, learning and service. Proud students and families will enter an anniversary float in the Albany Veteran’s Day Parade on Nov. 11.

School officials say its mission is "promoting each child’s spiritual, academic and character development as a Catholic Christian in the image of Jesus Christ." The founding Benedictines would have liked that.

In 1886, the superior of the Sisters who came to Albany was 19-year-old Sister Rose O’Brien. The other nuns were scarcely older, most in their early 20s. Sister Protasia Schindler, in charge of the art department and singing classes, was only 16.

The teachers did a little bit of everything around the grounds. They planted orchards, raised vegetables, canned food and cooked meals for the boarders and themselves over wood-burning stoves. They washed piles of clothing, bedding, table and altar linen. They rose as early as 3 a.m. to get work done before school time. Somehow, they also were taking courses in higher education.

Sister Flavia Stadler recalled that when she first went to Albany to teach at St. Mary’s in 1923, she and Sister Dolores Kaiser did nothing for an entire month before the school year began, except paint, wax and polish. The flights of stairs and expanses of floor, being part of a convent school, had to be kept immaculate.

Some stories have become legendary. In 1887, the nuns were informed that a distinguished prelate, Cardinal James Gibbons, was to pass through Albany on the evening train. He was accompanied by Archbishop William Gross of Oregon City and would stop for a short time at the nearby Albany depot. The Sisters and the students were to greet the luminaries.

Two young Benedictines had been directed to place lighted candles in all the school's windows facing the train station. When the task was completed, they decided to see what it looked like from the outside. After gazing at what looked like tiny stars twinkling in the dark, they walked back to the school only to discover that they had locked themselves out. Afraid their unattended candles would set the building ablaze — not a display they hoped to show the Cardinal — they began pushing against the heavy door with almost superhuman strength. After repeated efforts, the door fell, and they with it. Meantime, those at the station had received the blessing of the Cardinal. He remarked on the lovely lights in the fine-looking school.

When the carpenter was called the next day, he asked if the Sisters had been burglarized. When told what had happened, he could scarcely believe that the two diminuitive nuns had that much strength.

The early catalogue for Our Lady of Perpetual Help Academy says, "It is a delicate art to train the mind and form the characters of those who are to be society’s gentlewomen, but the Benedictine Sisters have made a life study of this important work, and the fact that their patrons include many of the representative families of the West is proof sufficient that their institute has won the recognition and appreciation of a discriminating public.”

Tuition, room and board cost $16 per month.

In 1911, scarlet fever struck. Twenty students fell ill. The Sisters nursed them devotedly, and the only death was that of a girl who had insisted on returning to her home. A mother and child, members of a traveling circus troupe, were brought to the academy and nursed by the nuns. The mother died, but the child lived.

Though under Catholic auspices, the school registered Jews, Protestants and Catholics alike. Th engendered the good will of Albany residents.

In 1932, in the middle of the Great Depression, Native American children were taken as boarders. They stayed for the next twenty years, the cost paid by the federal government.  
Sister Colette, who cooked for the school during the 1920s and who spent 15 years at St. Mary’s as cook and matron, said that the Sisters humorously referred to Albany as “their poor house.” It was difficult to get sufficient food. She spoke of having spinach almost every day, since it had been planted in the garden. Another strategy was to send to the butcher shop for soup bones, which were cheap. Often a little meat was left on the bones and it would be cut off and ground up for sandwich spread.

About 20 years after the parish bought the school, the 85-year-old building was demolished and replaced with the current, one-story structure. In 1983, lay leadership began but the Sisters continued to be a teaching presence. In 2001, the last two Sisters on the staff retired and the Benedictines concluded 115 years of teaching ministry in Albany.  

Now, the relationship between the parish and the school remains strong. About 90 percent of families attend from St. Mary Parish. In addition, the school draws families from St. Mary in Corvallis and St. Edward in Lebanon. Some students are the fourth generation to attend. Some staff members and former staff, including Father John Betts, a former pastor, are St. Mary’s alumni.

— Source: A history written by Sister Margaret Mary Johnson in 1971.

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