Saint Vincent Prep and Saint Xavier
The story of the Sisters of Mercy in western Pennsylvania connects with that of the Saint Vincent Benedictines from earliest days. We came to the newly established diocese of Pittsburgh with its first bishop, Michael O’Connor, in 1843, and in 1845 opened Mount Saint Vincent Academy for young ladies on the land where Saint Vincent Archabbey now stands. When the Benedictine monks arrived in 1846, the Sisters of Mercy moved to the Kuhn Farm property about one mile west of Saint Vincent to a new convent and school, and renamed it Saint Francis Xavier Academy.
The monks lent assistance to the Saint Xavier community from the start, celebrating Mass in the convent chapel, giving religious instructions to the academy students, and bringing the consoling presence of the church with graveside blessings at the sisters’ burial in Saint Xavier Cemetery. The Prep School and Saint Xavier Academy developed a friendly association sharing scholastic activities down through the years musical programs, school plays, debate tournaments. Saint X girls cheered at Prep sports events, and students from both schools danced at one another’s dances.
Both places influenced my life beginning in the late 1940s. My family moved to Latrobe from an area of central Pennsylvania where there were very few Catholics, so Saint Xavier provided my first opportunity for Catholic education. In the summer of 1950 Father Ralph Bailey recruited a group of Saint X students to assist with cataloguing materials in the music department at Saint Vincent. My two sisters and I were among the volunteers. We passed many happy hours that summer in the environment of working-fun. During the next several years we regularly traveled between SXA and the Prep for academic, social, and spiritual events. I’ve heard it said that Prep graduates are among the most loyal alumni of Saint Vincent. It is not difficult to imagine why this is so when I recall the lasting impression left by monks who were teachers there in the 1940s and 50s. Many a snowy Saturday morning Father Warren Raab drove a carload of us to a debate tournament in Pittsburgh. Father Jerome Rupprecht led groups of students from both schools on field trips through the woods and marshes of Westmoreland County. Often on Saturday evenings, too, he would organize and chaperone a skating party for us at Harry’s Rink in Latrobe. Father Wilfred Dumm always had a ready ear for a Saint Xavier student weighed down by some problem, and made religion classes both challenging and fun. Sometimes, too, Father Louis Sedlacko would call my dad to ask if “one of your daughters would do an act of kindness” by accompanying some shy, dateless Prep student to the Kitty Ball or prom.
Those Xavier years not only cultivated my vocation to the Sisters of Mercy, but they formed a sense of Saint Vincent as a good place that remains with me to this day. While I probably could not have named it as such at age fifteen, I recognized the monks as educated men and people of faith, the teachers of Christian culture down through the ages. Years later when I came back to teach at Saint Vincent Seminary and College, that early awareness of a place grounded in a long, rich tradition returned. The Benedictines seem able to create a wholesome environment of faith, while holding religiosity and false piety at bay. I’ve watched it over the decades: young monks animated by a visible fervor, and older monks ennobled by fidelity in quiet and unnoticed routines; faith expressed in rare moments of good church liturgy, and faith lived in daily moments of ordinary work and prayer; scholar-monks engaged in biblical exegesis in the classroom in the morning, and monk-scholars planting trees to beautify the campus in the afternoon. Not heaven, but a blessed place, real and earthy, where grace appears persistently present.
Saint Vincent Prep closed in 1971, and fire destroyed Saint Xavier on March 16, 1972. On the day of the fire, it was Brother Pat Lacey and the Saint Vincent fire brigade whose fast and efficient rescue efforts saved everyone, elderly sisters to young students, from harm. The neighborly community relationship begun in 1846 had come full circle.
Patricia McCann, R.S.M.