Academy took girls to new Heights

Photos courtesy of the Monastery Immaculate Conception
Girls worked in a science lab inside the Marian Heights Academy on the grounds of the Monastery Immaculate Conception in Ferdinand. The all-girls academy operated from 1870 through 2000.

By LEANN BURKE
lburke@dcherald.com

FERDINAND — Mel (McMahon) Stone remembers the morning in March 2000 when the sisters at the Monastery Immaculate Conception broke the news.

After 130 years, Marian Heights Academy was closing.

Stone walked to the cafeteria and saw staff members in a smaller room nearby, eyes puffy. They were crying. She remembers the tears and anguish of her classmates that followed the news. She remembers some students fighting to raise money to keep the school open and being unsuccessful. Mostly, she remembers everyone feeling like someone important had died.

“It was devastating,” she said, tearing up now 16 years later. “I was so mad I picked up a salt shaker and tried to throw it at (the prioress who broke the news).”

The sisters at Monastery Immaculate Conception will mark their 150th anniversary in 2017 with events and celebrations commemorating the order’s history. As the major ministry for more than a century, Marian Heights played a large role in the Benedictines’ history.

Marian Heights opened on the Monastery Immaculate Conception campus in Ferdinand in 1870 under the name Academy Immaculate Conception. At the time, there were not many educational opportunities for girls, and the Benedictine sisters sought to fill the void.

“It was a big decision for us to close it after 130 years,” Sister Dolores Folz said. “The expense of maintaining it, the enrollment was going down. It just became too expensive to operate.”

Folz taught at Marian Heights in the 1960s and ’70s, serving for a time as dean of students and a proctor (also known as a dorm supervisor).

Until 1919, the boarding school served girls in lower, middle and high school. After 1919, only high school-aged students attended the school. For many of them, their years at the school were life-changing.

Marian Heights was open to anyone, and for a brief period taught two boys. The boys needed Spanish credits for the University of Notre Dame programs they’d applied for, and Marian Heights was the only local school that offered Spanish at the time, so the sisters took them in.

“There’s the joke that it wasn’t always a school for girls,” said Sister Paulette Seng, who attended Marian Heights in the 1950s when it was Academy Immaculate Conception. She returned to teach at her alma mater in the '80s and taught until it closed.

Marian Heights attracted students from around the world — Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Japan, Pakistan, to name a few. Those girls came hoping to learn English and be part of a different culture. At the same time, they taught their classmates about their home cultures, too. Stone remembers those girls making food from their homelands in the kitchenettes in the dorm or sharing sweets from care packages they got from home. It opened her eyes to the world around her and made her more accepting of people who are different from her.

“Just to be a part of that and have that experience — to know that you were part of changing someone’s life and at the same time they’re changing yours,” Stone said. “You couldn’t get that anywhere else.”

Alumna Falisha Pierce also had her life changed thanks to the diversity of students at Marian Heights. Pierce grew up in St. Charles, Mo., and attended Marian Heights from 1986 to ’90. When she arrived at Marian Heights, she’d never seen a black person or met a Spanish speaker. In her first year, she met both.

“I am so much more tolerant,” she said. “My friends are so much more diverse because of (Marian Heights).”

Pierce now lives in Evansville with her 12-year-old daughter, Madison, and serves on the alumnae board.

Stone was a junior when the school closed, and she was one of five girls from her class to stay over the summer to complete her credits and walk away with one of the last Marian Heights diplomas.

“We did our entire senior year in five weeks,” Stone said. “We had a test every day. It was crazy, but it was honest to God the best summer of my life.”

Lay people and sisters both taught at the school, a mix that afforded the students opportunities to see things they wouldn’t elsewhere. Pierce remembers that one of the teachers owned a pig farm and let her help deliver piglets. In 1989, some of the sisters took students to Washington, D.C. for a protest march demanding aide for homelessness.

“Who gets to do that in high school?” Pierce said. “And the sisters all encouraged us to do that.”  

Pierce said the academics were in a league of their own, as well. At a time when dual-credit high school courses were unheard of, Marian Heights partnered with Vincennes University Jasper Campus to offer college credits. Pierce took advantage and was one of the only students at her college to arrive with credit.

Sister Paulette Seng attended Marian Heights in the 1950s when it was Academy Immaculate Conception. In the ’80s, she came back to teach at her alma mater and was there in 2000 when the school closed. She attributes the academy’s strong academics to the education of the sisters and lay faculty.

“The prioress at the time put a lot of value on education,” Seng said. “We had an (undergraduate) college on campus, and she would send us to other schools for further degrees, too.”

Marian Heights was accredited by the Indiana Department of Education and offered a plethora of extracurricular activities such as sports, music, theater and clubs, but as a private school it wasn’t held to all the same standards as public schools. For Stone, that made the Marian Heights education stronger. Teachers taught with methods that encouraged problem solving, critical thinking and risk taking in ways that teaching to educational standards couldn’t.

Stone believes the academics, coupled with the diverse student body and outside activities, shaped her into the woman she became. She took a risk of her own when she started Indiana Originals, a company that supports local business and helps connect consumers with services in their area. An app developed for Indiana Originals is available in app stores

“My love of travel, my openness to everything. I am who I am because of that school,” Stone said. “My life would be on a very different trajectory had I not gone there.”




More on DuboisCountyHerald.com