Oral History Feature is a series of articles drawn extensively from interviews with individuals who participated in or have personal knowledge about historic Pennsylvania events.

Teacher education was not a carefully systematized and regularized process in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centur­ies. Before the mandate for college de­grees, teacher examinations and certifi­cation, teachers in American classrooms would generally teach as they had been taught. This was particularly true in Ro­man Catholic parochial schools before diocesan administration of the school system. Lacking a formal, standardized program of teacher education, then, how did the religious communities of women who staffed American Catholic parochial schools prepare to teach?

Surviving members of the several reli­gious orders who taught in the parochial schools of Homestead, beginning in 1888, recall the various elements of their teacher education prior to 1921, when the Diocese of Pittsburgh opened a nor­mal school to train teachers for its paro­chial schools. The foundation of early teacher preparation was, of course, the educational background with which a girl or woman entered religious life. This varied greatly among the sisters, ranging from the completion of eighth grade to certification and the experience of public school teaching.

Frequently, in the early years, these nuns were immigrants or the children of immigrants. This was especially the case with the religious orders which first came to the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: the German Congregation of Di­vine Providence, the Polish Congrega­tion of the Holy Ghost, the Slovak Vin­centian Sisters of Charity and the Dominican Sisters of St. Rose of Lima. Yet, even the American-founded Sisters of Charity and orders such as the Con­gregation of St. Joseph and the Reli­gious Sisters of Mercy, which had earlier been established in the United States, attracted girls from immigrant families.

This influx of immigrants provided some amusing moments for the Ameri­can sisters. One young woman from Trinidad, who through a family connec­tion entered the Religious Sisters of Mercy at Loretto (Pa.) in 1881, was dis­covered one morning searching for a doughnut tree. On another occasion, this same girl was cleaning her class­room when one of the sisters suggested that she needed a little elbow grease. Ac­cordingly, the novice went to the kitchen in search of elbow grease, where she was told she would first have to get permis­sion from the Mother Superior. Finally, Mother told her, “Oh, Sister! They are teasing you. Just rub hard.” Notwith­standing such practical jokes, this pos­tulant was later among those who taught at St. Mary Magdalene, the first parochial school in Homestead.

The variety of backgrounds, both American and foreign, contrasted with the singleness of the sisters’ motives for entering religious life. All believed that they were called to their vocation by God. Some, however, offered interest­ing additional reasons for entering the convent. One Sister of the Holy Ghost confided that she came to the convent at age fourteen because she feared if she waited until she was sixteen, she may have by then taken on “the trouble of a husband.” A Sister of Charity dis­closed, “I decided I wanted to be a sis­ter – I never thought I could love just one man all my life.

Several nuns expressed an initial re­luctance to embrace teaching, however. Even when joining a teaching order, a sister did not always plan to teach. One Sister of Charity confessed that when she entered in 1910, “I never wanted to teach.” What did she want to do? “Nothing special, but I didn’t want to teach. I had been a mischief myself in school, see, and I was afraid I might get the same type.” A Sister of the Holy Ghost who began teaching as a postu­lant in Homestead in 1917 expressed similar reservations:

To tell you the truth, I never wanted to be a teacher. Never! I wanted to be a nurse – that was my desire. But we were instructed that whatever the Superior tells you to do, it’s God Himself who wants it. And by going to school, I know it’s true, because I was quite suc­cessful in my teaching profession even though I never wanted it. That success came only directly from God.

The sisters’ preservice preparation for teaching, prior to the establish­ment of the diocesan normal school, was as practical as it was informal. When one Sister of Mercy who entered around 1900 was asked how she got ready to teach, she replied, “I didn’t get ready. I was just a person that they se­lected to teach.” This nun was typical of the sisters who came to religious life upon completion of eighth grade and were very soon sent out to teach. But even without formal preparation, Sister said she had no difficulty at all: “I sup­pose it was a natural to me. In those days children were wonderful.” Then, too, help was near at hand since supervi­sion was provided regularly by her school principal and daily by the more experienced sisters teaching at the school. To this, Sister attributed her lack of problems: “Everyone seemed to be helping me.” Moreover, in-service education was lifelong. By the time this sister retired, some sixty years later, she had earned not only a high school di­ploma and bachelor’s degree but a mas­ter’s as well, and all on Saturdays, after school hours, and in the summers, with minimal full-time college attendance.

In like fashion, on July 29, 1905, a fourteen-year-old girl from 1he North Side of Pittsburgh became the first American postulant of the Vincentian Sisters of Charity, a Slovak order estab­lished after the pastor of St. Michael’s, the Slovak parish in Braddock, request­ed assistance. The young sister had just graduated from St. Elizabeth parochial school a month prior to entering reli­gious life, but the need for teachers was great. In September she was assigned to teach 102 second graders at St. Mi­chael’s, where she received daily assis­tance in planning lessons from the Euro­pean sisters already present who were trained and experienced teachers. In turn, the new American sister taught English to the immigrant nuns, who spoke only German, Slovak and Hun­garian. Sister said her mind was preoc­cupied with coming before her class for the first time: “Here I am, I’ve got to do my work. I just had to figure out what the sisters did and how they did it, and I tried to imitate them.” The young girl not only learned how to teach but continued to practice that occupation for over fifty of her seventy-six years as a Vincentian sister.

Within each order’s motherhouse in the Pittsburgh area, the nuns prepared to teach, not only in Homestead paro­chial schools but also in the various schools staffed by each order through­out western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio. In some cases, an order taught schools in more than one diocese as well, and individual sisters were fre­quently transferred among the order’s schools. As a result, the sisters could draw upon a wide range of school expe­riences to adapt to new assignments.

Consequently, sisters who taught in Homestead could often remember schools in other towns. One Sister of St. Joseph, who began teaching in 1912, as­sociates her early experience with a school assignment in Dunbar. She was one-half the teaching staff of the school, in charge of the fifth, sixth, sev­enth and eighth graders who filled one room on the second floor of the build­ing. “It was a poor school,” Sister re­called, “with oil lamps and a pot bellied stove. Those who sat near the stove were roasted during the winter, and if you sat away from it, you were frozen – so you took ‘pot luck’ because it was a pot bel­lied stove.”

Generally, the sisters had happy memories of teaching in Homestead, but one Vincentian Sister of Charity who was first assigned there in 1916 considered her subsequent assignments much more enjoyable. At Homestead, she remembered a year of unpleasant­ness which she connected to her longing to be with her widowed mother. (The stories other sisters tell indicate that their early teaching was also greatly in­fluenced by their family situations.) She recalled rain coming down the walls of her basement classroom and having to sleep in the attic of the convent with other young sisters due to overcrowd­ing. Also, Sister said there were no trees to enjoy outside the old convent; only the pavement lay beyond the front porch. Homestead was a place she was glad to leave: “I didn’t enjoy that year at all.”

Obviously, the condition of the school in which a sister found herself had a dramatic influence on her expe­rience. In Homestead, as in other urban industrial areas of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the popu­lation grew rapidly through the forces of immigration and industrialization, and parochial school enrollments were extraordinarily high. The demand upon parish resources was unwieldy and the need for teachers was immediate and crucial. Teachers faced large classes, and experiences like that of the young Vincentian nun were commonplace.

One Sister of Charily, who was first assigned to teach eighty-nine first grad­ers in Homestead in 1917, a year after she had entered the order, spoke of her second year, this time with 129 first graders:

There were ten windows in my room, with real wide windowsills. When Father brought me the 129, he looked at me and I said, “Look, Father, there’s ten windows. Now if you can get me some boxes, I’ll put the next little child on them.” He said, “Good-bye, Sis­ter.”

Yet again, not only did Sister survive, but she continued to teach first grade for sixty-four more years, during which she, too, continued her own education on Saturdays, in the summers and after school.

The sisters were indeed subject to the direction of their superiors. This direction usually began with their very first assignment. Occasionally, how­ever, teachers were able to influence de­cisions concerning their futures. One Sister of St. Joseph related a triumph over the school principal when, as a new graduate of the Duquesne University School of Music, she was sent from the motherhouse at Baden to Johnstown to take over the high school music pro­gram:

When I got there, I found out they wanted me to teach religion and history, in addition to the music. Well, I got on the train and came back to Baden to Mother Superior, and I said to her, “They want me to teach religion and history and music, and I’m asking you if I can be just a music teacher.” She said, “Do you think you can do it?” And I was thinking in my head – I didn’t say anything – “What do you think I came all the way down here for if I didn’t think I could do it?” And she said, “If you think you can do it, it’s all right with me. Is that all you want?” I said, “Yes, thank you very much, Mother.” So I went back up to Johnstown and I went in to the principal and said, “I went to the motherhouse yesterday.” “What?” gasped the principal. “And I asked mother if I could teach only the music and leave the religion and history for somebody else.” The principal was in no position to refuse.

In addition to the school principal, each religious order had a community supervisor, a nun experienced in teaching, who observed teachers three or four times each year. One Sister of St. Jo­seph who entered in 1910 talked about the visit of a “very meticulous” com­munity supervisor to her combined fifth- and sixth-grade classroom in a Slovak school. “The pupils were the children of immigrants,” Sister ex­plained. “They didn’t have much in the home, they just kind of lived day by day, and the language was the foreign language, not the English language.” She had been trying to teach them the division of fractions by instructing re­peatedly that they were to “invert the divisor and go on as a multiplication,” but they hadn’t been able to understand. So finally Sister told them, “Well, turn it upside down – that’s what ‘invert’ means, and make a multiplication sign over the division sign.” Then they un­derstood and were able to work the problems. When the community super­visor visited, she asked one of the pupils who had obtained the correct answer to explain her procedure. Little Anna said, “I just turned the divisor upside down and then I started to multiply.” Sister recounted:

So that was O.K. – Sister didn’t say anything to Anna. When she was leav­ing she called me outside of the door and she said, “Sister, I just can’t believe my own ears. You, knowing the English language and knowing the definition of ‘invert,’ I can’t understand why you would apparently teach the youngsters to say, ‘Turn it upside down.’ ‘Invert’ is the proper word.” I said, “Sister, I used the word ‘invert’ until I was nearly up­side down, and somehow I got the word that they knew, and that way they got their work.” She walked off and I don’t know what she said to me after that. I knew I got my point across.

Evidently, education was sometimes re­ceived by community supervisors as well as given to new novice teachers.

There were also visits by the diocesan superintendent of schools, as recalled vividly by many sisters from their early teaching days. One nun told of the day the diocesan superintendent was coming to her third- and fourth-grade class­room in Ebensburg. “He would just come in and slip into one of the back seats,” Sister said, so she had informed the children that the supervisor was in the building. “And J said, ‘When he comes in, you won’t know he’s coming in, because he just comes in like a little mouse. He’ll sneak right into one of the back seats.'” Later in the day the priest entered, “and this little kid put up her hand and said, ‘That sneak you told us about is sitting in the back seat.'”

All the sisters spoke of less shattering experiences of supervision received within the confines of convent walls in the Homestead parishes. During their study time each evening, the sisters, seated together at a large table and help­ing one another, would prepare their work for the next day and correct their papers from the day before. One Sister of St. Joseph retold the story of Sister Cecilia:

At one parish a little Irish nun, Sister Patrick, was the house sister and cook. She’d come up and sit with the sisters and crochet or read or whatever in her little rocking chair, right in the corner where she wanted it. The rest were sit­ting around correcting papers. A mouse got into the wastebasket this one even­ing, and Sister Patrick caught sight of him. Up she jumped, screaming, up on­to the chairs and onto the table – an­other little step and she’d have been on the papers. Sister Cecilia jumped up, yelling, “Sister Patrick! Sister Patrick! My papers! My papers!” And Sister Pa­trick, picking up her skirt, looked down upon her in reproach, “Sure, what are yer papers to me life!”

Much history is interwoven in the sis­ters’ stories of their early teaching expe­riences. Several nuns remembered teaching during the swine flu epidemic of 1918. One Sister of St. Joseph, for example, was commuting by train from the motherhouse at Baden to Sewickley that fall to teach about forty firth-grade children:

In those days you rang a bell and the kids got in line to march up to school. That morning I said to the principal, “I only have ten children – what’s the mat­ter?” She said, “Sister, what did you do to them all yesterday?” I said, “Noth­ing that I know of.” The other lines were perfect, but the fifth-grade line was simply destroyed. We went into school without knowing yet what was wrong. Soon a boy came up to me and said, “Sister, I feel so sick – I feel as if I swallowed a paper full of needles.” I told him, “Well, put your head down and if you don’t feel any better, we’ll send for your father to come and take you home.” Well, about two minutes later another child came up and said, “Sister, I’m sick.” And so on – by eleven o’clock I had one girl left, and she was scarlet, just burning up. But her dad couldn’t get off work to come for her until his dinner hour. By noon the entire class was gone.

Sister herself then became ill and was taken back on the train to the mother­house. Yet she struggled to continue:

The next morning I go1 up to go to school and I met the Mother Superior in the hall downstairs and she said, “You’re not to go to school.” I said, “I’m all right.” But she said, “No, the Board of Health called up and said there’s an epidemic. They do not know what it is.” So then they closed all schools. I was in bed with it for two or three weeks, and a couple of our sisters died.

The pupil attendance books at Home­stead parochial schools for the school year 1918-19 glaringly record the grim situation – they are blank from October 8 to November 13, 1918. The sisters who remained at the parishes ministered to the sick as they were able. In Home­stead, they went out as lone figures on the deserted streets.

Looking back upon a lifetime of teaching, each of the sisters glow­ingly summarized her early work in such words as, “I enjoyed every minute of it.” “I would want to live every one of them over again,” one sister added. A Sister of Divine Providence cherished compliments like that given her by one young boy so many years ago, “Sister, I like you because you teach me English good.” Another sister said she still hears from one of her first pupils, a boy she taught in 1912 who is now a grand­father. Still another sister confided with a smile, “Sometimes I think I got too much pleasure out of it.”

By a variety of ways and means, then, the sisters who taught in American Ro­man Catholic parochial schools in the late nineteenth and early twentieth cen­turies became educated as teachers. Time and again, they went where they were needed, they taught the children, and they trusted in God for all else. Al­though superseded since by concern for regularization and systematization, theirs was nevertheless the spirit of early Catholic teacher education.


The primary material incorporated in this article is taken from research for a dissertation, drawing extensively from interviews with retired parochial teachers. The study is also part of The Homestead Study, a research project of the College of Education at Penn State, which has identified Homestead as the site of a comprehensive historical investigation of American educational policy and the nature and function of public and private schooling, 1880-1940.


Mary Anne Grover is a Ph.D. candidate in education theory and policy at The Pennsylvania State University. In sup­port of her study of religious values in the history and philosophy of teacher education, she received a Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fel­lowship for the writing of her disserta­tion, “‘Not One Whit Inferior’: The­ory and Practice of Catholic Teacher Preparation in Homestead, Pennsylva­nia, 1884-1920.”