Sunday, February 15, 2004

Old-school, in a modern way

By Liz Oakes
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Sister Mary Agnes walks with students at Immaculate Conception Academy.

In full habit, Sister Mary Agnes paddles on an undisclosed river, in this undated photo.

NORWOOD - In a dark-paneled office adorned with statues of saints and pictures of children at Immaculate Conception Academy, Sister Mary Agnes contemplates her past - and her future.

Seventeen years ago, she graduated from the academy when it was in Westwood. Now, she's finishing her first year as acting principal in the same school where she played on the girls field hockey team and daydreamed about boys.

Immaculate Conception, which houses 106 students in grades K-12, is one of the few remaining Catholic schools in the Midwest with as many as 10 nuns dressed head-to-toe in the full habit prevalent decades ago.

It's also the only one with that many traditionally clothed nuns in the Tristate, area Catholic officials say.

Students' families come from across Greater Cincinnati; about half moved to the region just to be able to send their kids to a school where daily Mass is celebrated in Latin, among other traditions, Sister Mary Agnes says.

Enrollment at the academy, which also has eight lay teachers, includes two students from New Jersey who board with local families.

Attending the school is "like a walk back in time," Sister Mary Agnes says.

Children kneel during an hourlong daily Latin Mass at Immaculate Conception Church next door and attend three-hour chapel services on Holy Days, including the Saturday before Easter. "Altar boys have to learn Latin from an early age," she says.

The dress code mandates that girls' uniform skirts fall below the knee, and high school boys and male teachers must wear ties and jackets.

One break with the past: Corporal punishment is not allowed.

Immaculate Conception Academy
Address: 4510 Floral Ave., Norwood.
Founded: 1981 as St. Gertrude Academy, Westwood.
Number of students: 106 in grades K-12; 81 of the students attend the grammar school.
Tuition: Sliding scale, based on family size.
Information: 731-0154.
The school's adherence to past rituals does not rule out modern technology.

Sister Mary Agnes teaches Microsoft Office XP and Web design to 11th- and 12th-graders. The high school, with 25 students, boasts 15 Dell Pentium 3 and 4 computers.

"I have to stay current," she says. "We stay with the latest."

Later, in the computer science classroom, Ava Straight, 18, of Norwood, demonstrates one of her Web projects.

Straight says she appreciates having an assistant principal who remembers what senior year was like.

"I think she can relate to what we're going through," Straight says. "She can help us - and keep us in line."

Immaculate Conception moved to the former St. Matthew School nine years ago after outgrowing its old site.

The school is run by the Daughters of Mary, an order based in Round Top, N.Y., and affiliated with the Society of St. Pius V, a group that advocates traditional, pre-Vatican II church ways.

The Daughters of Mary also oversee St. Anne's Academy in St. Paul, Minn., and St. Pius V School on Long Island, N.Y.

The school is not connected to the Archdiocese of Cincinnati.

In the last 30 years, "there have been a lot of changes which we do not follow. That's why we wear the habit," she says.

At 33, Sister Mary Agnes still looks young enough to be one of her students.

Her family sent the Traverse City, Mich., native as a junior eight hours away to St. Gertrude Academy, as it was called then, where she lived with a family in Westwood.

As a child, she says, she didn't think about becoming a nun. She wanted to go into the medical field.

"I led a normal high school life - dating, having fun," she says.

Then another girl a year behind in school, Regina Shawhan, was diagnosed with cancer of the lymph nodes shortly after graduation.

"I realized that life was short, and I wanted to live mine well," Sister Mary Agnes says. "She died when she was 19, and she was my best friend."

Sister Mary Agnes studied in the convent eight years, then became a teacher at the order's school on Long Island.

Four years ago, she transferred to work with Principal Mother Mary Bosco at the academy. Sister Mary Agnes and the other nine nuns there live at the convent on-site and play volleyball, soccer and basketball with their students.

"I like to be a part of their classes, rather than just shut myself off in an office," Sister Mary Agnes says.


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