Sister Mary Emmanuel Shea was born Oct. 4, 1893, in Effingham, Illinois. At the age of 15, she heard a sermon that changed her life. The priest said, “God never created a soul that didn’t have definitive work — get married, live the single life or have a religious vocation.” She prayed, “Oh my God, point out the way in which I should walk. Help me do your holy will and help me save my soul.” Seven years later, she received an answer to that prayer, asking her to come to Dallas and teach. Her mother was dead, so she asked her father for permission. He said, “Go. It may be the turning point of your life.”
Sister Emmanuel traveled to Dallas thinking she would teach third and fourth grade as she had in Illinois. “Within six weeks, I knew that this was where I had been brought. I came, I saw, and I was conquered.”
Sister Emmanuel shared this memory on March 12, 1975, as part of the Lakewood Library Oral History Project. Ursuline Academy, the Catholic college preparatory school for high school girls now located on Walnut Hill Lane, was founded in 1874 with seven students. In 1884 the school moved out of the downtown area to a new brick building located at Bryan, Haskell and Live Oak streets. That building served the academy until 1949, when the school relocated to its current site. The grammar school section was discontinued in 1976, and high school education became the emphasis.
But Sister Emmanuel remembered the early days, when she said that logic and philosophy were a priority even in 1915.
The three-story building on Bryan, which she said was modeled after a French castle, was “very imposing.” It included an auditorium and chapel. Each child had a curtained-off bed in the dormitories, and sisters slept in the corners in their own curtained-off beds.
Day students had a separate curriculum and faculty from the boarders. Sister Emmanuel remembered the older nun talking about the issue. “They were afraid the day students would contaminate the boarders,” she said. “We felt that the boarders were much closer to the sisters than the day students because we were with them morning, noon and night. [We] didn’t want them feeling that they were missing so many of the things that the day scholars would be coming in and talking about.”
Parents sent their children to the convent in the early days for two reasons, according to Sister Emmanuel. One was to make them into cultured women because of the school’s art, music and fine arts departments. Another was because parents felt their daughters needed reforming. “I resented that,” she said. “All the mistakes the parents had made were going to be ironed out by the school.”
DID YOU KNOW?
Here is a list of items that boarding students at Ursuline were expected to bring with them in 1893:
- Two pairs of sheets, four pillow cases, one white counterpane.
- One mosquito net.
- Two pairs of blankets, six towels, six large table napkins.
- Six handkerchiefs, six plain linen collars, six changes of linen, two dark underskirts, three nightgowns, two bathing gowns.
- Six pairs of hose, two black aprons for the young ladies, four blue-checked aprons for the little girls, two flannel skirts, two dark sun bonnets.
- Two pairs of heavy shoes, one pair overshoes, one gossamer.
- One black cloth jacket.
- One bag for soiled linen, one bag for shoes.
- A fine comb and a coarse comb.
- A hairbrush and toothbrush.
- A furnished workbox for sewing class.
- A table service of spoon, fork and knife.
- A glass or silver goblet.
- A white dress for ceremonies.
Each nun taught a different subject. Sister Emmanuel taught religion and math. Three types of diplomas were available — a classical version with rigorous language requirements, including Latin, an intermediate diploma and a commercial one. Some of the most distinguished families sent daughters to the school, and Southern Methodist University was known to admit Ursuline graduates. “They liked to have our girls come down there,” she said. “They knew they were well-prepared.”
Catholicism was taught with the parents’ written permission. “In the heart of every child is that desire to know and love God,” Sister Emmanuel said. “Some [parents] would bring them to me and say, ‘I want her character formed.’ I said, ‘Well, she can’t have a character formed without believing in God and living as God’s child.’”
Sister Emmanuel remembered challenging times during World War I, when sugar was rationed and shoe coupons were in demand. With fathers fighting and mothers working, the school had 121 boarders. Students arrived with suitcases containing little clothing and no linens. Cots were strung in the dorms when all of the beds were taken. The sisters went to the bishop and explained that they couldn’t accommodate all of the applicants. “He said, ‘You must take every one of them because God is sending them to you for something. They are getting some help from what you’re giving them.’”
Everybody made the best of a bad situation. They created their own entertainment by staging elaborate plays. The girls enjoyed doing the Charleston. “We were upset about some of the girls that knew how to do it,” she remembered. “They had to wear cotton stockings. The girls would bring silk ones in their pockets and then when they got on the streetcar right there before everybody, they changed the cotton to the silk and rode home.”
Sister Emmanuel was ill during the Depression and didn’t remember much about that time period. The sisters didn’t earn a salary, but their needs were met. She recalled eating potatoes for breakfast one morning and cornbread the next. The students and nuns dined on “crippled cake” and “crippled bacon.” These were pieces that fell off at the store and sold at a discount. The nuns raised their own pigs, even though some neighbors objected to the smell.
Sister Martha was in charge of the chickens. One night, a thief with a bag on his shoulder absconded with a large part of the flock. Anton, a guard, waited for him the next night on the roof with a string linking his toe to the gate. When the gate opened, he awoke and confronted the thief. “‘What are you doing in my chicken yard?’” Sister Emmanuel recounted. “He said, ‘I’m looking for Monsignor.’ Anton had him arrested.”
Sister Emmanuel described the early uniforms as woolen sailors suits. Students were required to wear caps with tassels that read “Ursuline Academy.” “Every time they went out for walks, they had to wear these hats,” she recalled. “They didn’t like that.”
The girls stayed in blue for years, she remembered. They wore blue silk blouses with white collars and white cuffs. Their ties were emblazoned with “CLC,” which stood for “courtesy,” “loyalty” and “courage.” Grade school students wore felt armbands with the same insignia or “Serviam,” which is the school’s motto, “I will serve.”
In the summer, students wore a white silk one-piece dress with a red tie. “Red was for the martyr Ursula, and white for the virgin that she was, and St. Angela, too.”
As the staff prepared to relocate to Walnut Hill in 1949, the nuns grappled with what to do about the sisters and priests buried at Bryan Street. “The superior said, ‘If we can get permission to move those bodies, we will definitely know that God wants us to move.’” After a judge helped them get permission to move the bodies, the nuns gathered on a cold February day. “I saw some sights that would make you realize that death is a reality,” Sister Emmanuel remembered. False teeth were the only remains left from a former superior. Another sister was buried in an old war material habit, which had not disintegrated.
“Prudence Ward, who many people will remember, gave us trouble even in death,” she recalled. Ward, who started out as a novice but didn’t persevere, came to live as a permanent boarder in exchange for a donation of $5,000 to take care of her perpetually. “Well, we didn’t know she was going to last for 90 years. She had all kinds of demands. She ordered some kind of a heavy steel casket. They liked to never got that out.”
Sister Emmanuel spoke passionately about her habit, the traditional costume of nuns. It isn’t the habit that makes the sister, she said, but it symbolizes service. “People approach you if they need help,” she said. “We’ve had them ask us to pray for them, and they didn’t even know us. They felt that we were interested in what’s going on in any human being’s life.”
When she was interviewed in 1975, Sister Emmanuel was concerned about false values, materialism and the media. “Pleasure is the be-all and end-all of everything,” she said. “They’re missing something. In the heart of everybody that God has created is that longing for happiness. True happiness is union with God. You must love God above all things and your neighbor as yourself.”
Sister Emmanuel died in 1993. Ann Thomas and Bertha Fritz conducted this interview of Sister Emmanuel for the Lakewood Library Oral History Project. You can find out more about the project at dallaslibrary.org.
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