For more than thirty years, a Catholic boarding school and academy for young women existed in Hastings. In fact, there were two schools, one superseding the other. The first one, known as the Academy of the Visitation, included the usual course of study in the primary, intermediate, and academic departments, according to the Hastings Independent Tribune of August 23, 1895. The school functioned for six years. The second one, the Immaculate Conception Academy, was a preparatory school and academy. In the 24 years this school existed, it provided an education from the ninth through the 14th grades for several hundred young women, both Catholic and Protestant, from communities in Nebraska, Colorado and Iowa.
The original school had its beginnings in 1889 when Thomas Farrell, a leading Catholic layman in community, transferred a ten-acre tract at Pine Avenue and 14th Street to the Sisters of the Visitation, an order whose Mother House was in Chicago. Construction began immediately, and the building was opened on January 6, 1890. The three-story structure was of Colorado red sandstone from Thomas Farrell’s quarries, with ground dimensions of 80 by 184 feet. The east wing was the convent for the Sisters in charge of the school, and the west wing was for the accommodation of students and the reception of visitors. A ten-foot high wooden fence surrounded the school. A newspaper story in later years said that the entire construction cost had amounted to $100,000, a large sum at that time.
The first classes began on February 5, 1890. The course of instruction included vocal music, the harp, piano, guitar and mandolin; and in the art department instruction in oil, water colors and china painting. Lessons were also given in all kinds of needlework. French, German and Latin were taught. Students were also taught bookkeeping, typewriting, stenography, and telegraphy. Some pupils were boarding students from rural areas or communities which did not have high schools. Parents who wished their children to have a full high school education had to send them to boarding schools. Protestant academies, including those at Hastings College, Franklin, Fairfield, Crete were for both boys and girls. Many families hesitated to send young daughters to non-segregated schools, and although there was a rigid divide between Catholics and Protestants, some Protestant parents decided that exposing their daughters to an alien religion was a lesser evil than having them in contact with unknown boys. Some pupils were day students from Hastings, who took the horse drawn streetcar which went up Pine Avenue and stopped at the entrance to the school.
The 1890s were years of drought, heat, crop failures and bank closings. All institutions on the Great Plains were in precarious financial condition. After the Order had paid the initial $10,000 toward the construction of the school, it could pay no more nor could it pay the interest on the mortgage. In 1896 the Visitation Academy was forced to close. The Sisters abandoned the property in December. However, Sister Margaret and Sister Anastasia, left the order and remained in Hastings to spend the rest of their lives as nurses in the community.
For a dozen years, from 1896 to 1908, the building was unoccupied save for a family that moved in as caretakers for the creditors. By the turn of the century, after the drought and depression were over, businessmen in Hastings began to consider what use could be made of the structure. A building so large, subject to deterioration if it were left unused and unrepaired, could prove damaging to property values. Rats were infesting the building, the roof was leaking and each succeeding year of non-use depreciated its usability and value.
In 1908 Bishop Thomas Bonacum of Lincoln and the Sisters of St. Dominic, known as the Dominican Sisters, from the Convent of St. Catharine of Siena in Springfield, Kentucky, made an offer to the Commercial Club of Hastings. If Hastings would raise $8,000 and turn over the old convent building, the Sisters would repair the building and establish a school for young women. Father William McDonald, local parish priest, and the Hastings Commercial Club began the job of soliciting subscriptions, and by January 6, 1909, the funds had been raised.
Mother Magdalene arrived from St. Catharine, Kentucky on April 30 to supervise the final preparations. Eight Sisters arrived mid-summer to scrub and equip the building, investing about $30,000 in the renovation. The west half of the building was the convent and the east half was the school. By September, everything was in order. “The Sisters had planned for an initial enrollment of about 75 pupils,” the Hastings Daily Tribune of September 15, 1909, reported. “Facilities were provided for a larger number, but when the registration passed the 100 mark, it was necessary to send out for more desks for emergency use until others could be obtained.”
By the following year there were 125 boarding and day students enrolled. Although there was considerable emphasis on the study of art and music, the school had laboratories for physics and chemistry and a new gymnasium. Miss Marguerite Higgins of Boston was the physical education instructor, teaching Swedish and German American systems of gymnastics, basketball, social, aesthetic and folk dancing, fencing, club swinging. The program included a special corrective department for children with spinal curvature, round shoulders, and dropping head. In later years tennis courts were added.
Among the students in 1910 was Leona Bassett whose father and step mother lived east of Hastings on the road now named 12th Street. Leona, dressed in white, is the fourth person in the back row of the photo. She was able to attend the academy only one year because her step mother did not want money spent on Leona’s education. The original of this photo is a post card.
There were three members of the first graduating class in 1911. At that time the school had 12 grades; the two junior college grades were added in 1925 with Sister Leonardo as dean. The annual Educational Directories of the Nebraska Department of Public Instruction indicate that sister Mary Louis was the principal until 1916; Sister Aloysius, 1916-1917; Sister Mary Virginia, 1918-1924; Sister Eleanor, 1924-1926; Sister Rose de Lima, a graduate of ICA, 1926-1927; Sister Clara, 1927-1928 and 1929-1930; Sister Henrietta, 1928-1929; and Sister Mary Rose, 1930-1931. Among the teachers were Sister Bonaventure, Sister Helen Marie, Sister Columbo; Sister Thersa in music; Sister Geraldine in gymnastics; and Sister Veronica in art. There were usually four or five faculty members.
During the early years of the academy there were about 125 boarding students at a time. The girls lived on the third, or top, floor of the academy, either in large barracks-like dormitory rooms, or in smaller single or double rooms, which were usually saved for the senior girls. The schedule for the boarding students called for them to arise at 6:30 a.m., attend Mass at 7, then have breakfast and be ready for classes which started at 9 a.m. The girls were carefully supervised; daily walks were part of the schedule, the girls walking two-by-two down Academy Avenue, sometimes over to the cemetery on Elm Avenue, always chaperoned by one of the Sisters. The mail of the boarding students was carefully scrutinized, particularly that from home-town boy friends, and some of the students went to great lengths to arrange mail-drops with friends in town.
The girls wore school uniforms of white middy blouses and pleated navy blue skirts during the period of the 1910’s. At a later date, according to pictures in the annuals of 1925 and 1926, they wore long-sleeved navy blue dresses with white Peter Pan collars and long satin bow-ties. For Mass, they wore chapel veils or mantillas.
The numbers of day students varied from time to time. Included among them, particularly among the lower graders, were a number of local Catholic boys, Joseph Kealy, Leo Coffey, Mark Cantwell and Paul Kernan among them. Few boys were ever graduated from the academy, however, transferring instead to the public school.
After 1912, there were no further elementary classes at the academy because St. Cecilia’s established a parish school in Hastings. The teaching staff was Dominican Sisters who lived in the Convent part of the Immaculate Conception Academy. When boarding students in elementary grades were in residence at the academy, they went into town with the Sisters who taught at St. Cecilia’s, taking their class work there. The academy was especially strong in its instruction of both art and music, and had special classrooms on the first floor for each of those subjects. Sister Veronica, the art teacher, was an accomplished painter and in addition to teaching fine arts also taught craft-style art. The school had its own kiln for firing ceramics.
The music department had a gramophone on which students could listen to records, and every time there was a opera or some other outstanding musical program at the Kerr Opera House downtown, academy students attended, under close chaperonage. From time to time, the music department presented operettas and participated in early-day radio broadcasts at station KFKX.
Students were given academy diplomas at graduation exercises, and most of the girls also received teaching certificates and/or letters of admission to the University. In fact by 1918 the headlines in the Tribune referred to the school as the Catholic Normal. (A Normal School trains students to be teachers.) According to Nebraska State Education Directories the academy was an approved normal training school from 1911 through 1931; and from the school year 1925-26 onward, graduates were accredited automatically for entrance to the University of Nebraska.
Disaster struck on May 8, 1930, when a tornado swept across Hastings. When the winds died down, the Sisters discovered that the third floor of the building was almost entirely demolished. Mercifully, no one was injured. Clearing away the rubble, the Sisters made plans to rebuild, “The gabled room and top story of the building will be removed and a flat roof will be put on.” the Tribune of July 12th reported. The interior of the building was redesigned to accommodate the necessary 17 classrooms, the library, reception room and offices in the now two-story building. And the Sisters discovered that there was enough salvaged brick to build a long needed gymnasium. The 30 by 65 feet building included a stage, flanked by dressing rooms, at one end.
But the depression that was to destroy the economy of the country in the 1930s had already begun. Money for tuition to send girls away to school was no longer as plentiful as it had been in earlier years. With fewer boarding students and less tuition money coming in, and with a new debt to cope with, the Dominican Order reluctantly decided to close the academy. On May 9, 1932 Bishop Kucera of Lincoln announced that the buildings and grounds had been sold to the Crosier Fathers. The graduating class of 1932 was the last one. The building that had been a girls school would now become a college and seminary for men. Some of the Sisters remained in Hastings and taught at St. Cecilia’s school where tenth, eleventh and twelfth grades were added.
The three youngest daughters of John and Bertha Kline attended the Immaculate Conception Academy. All three became Dominican nuns influenced by their teachers at the academy. In a 1988 interview Sister Frances Kline talked about the academy. “I was in school at Immaculate Conception Academy when Father died. [14 March 1914] Uncle George Pressler—he had a car then and we didn’t have one—came down and got us. They didn’t tell us that he was dead, just that he was sick. The Sister in charge there she said “Well now, take your black dress because you will need it to go to Mass tomorrow.” We wore blue during the week and black on Sunday. So we didn’t know until we got home. We just went home at vacation time–Christmas and in the summer. The first year I was there was when Father died. I was out of ICA for two years before I went to the convent. I taught school the second year at Skunk Hollow School. I drove a horse and buggy from home. It was four or five miles.”
In the early 20th century, the Immaculate Conception Academy served its purpose, providing quality education for upwards of a thousand young women. Some graduates became teachers, some went on to the University of Nebraska, and some graduates went into religious vocations. Sister Leonardo, formerly Clara Kline, a graduate with the class of 1913, returned to the academy as the dean of the junior college as soon as it was established in 1925. Among the other religious were Sister Theodore Kline, Sister Mary Louise Helmann, Sister Ernestine Choquette, Sister Francis Kline, and Sister Celestine Waltham. All the school records seem to have disappeared, being neither at the Mother House in St. Catharine, with the Dominican Sisters who still provide educational instruction at St. Cecilia’s, nor in any parish nor diocesan archive in Hastings or Lincoln.
Today the building is an office complex named Crosier Park.