A palpable sense of history left an indelible mark on my first trip to the Ursuline sisters’ motherhouse in rural St. Martin, OH, as a high school student on retreat.  I attended their girls’ academy in suburban Cincinnati, so the nuns’ heritage 50 miles east meant little to me until I experienced it. The 150 acres of farmland and woods interspersed with historic and contemporary buildings emanated the courageous spirit of the founders, a group of French sisters who arrived in 1845.  The atmosphere exuded determination, faith, and joy.

Recently I visited there again with my husband’s aunt and my sister-in-law who is also a high-school classmate.  We set out under the clear blue sky of a chilly fall morning, recollecting as we drove the tree-lined entranceway that had been so beautiful.  Making the right turn from Rt. 251 into the drive with anticipation, our hearts sank at the sight of partially cut down trees on the right and sick-looking trees on the left.

Later we learned that the Emerald Ash Borer beetle had infested the trees.  Of course other changes had occurred during the 30 years since I was in high school.  The original four-story motherhouse that formerly had housed a boarding school was torn down in 1985.  They no longer used that much space, and it was costly to maintain.  A much smaller residence was built for the sisters elsewhere on the property.  Chatfield College, offering a liberal arts associate degree program to primarily adult learners, continues there in St. Martin and at a downtown Cincinnati campus, along with my alma mater in the suburbs.

Aunt Mary Lois’ ties to the college prompted our visit.  We were shown a new state-of-the-art classroom building completed two years ago, an older building converted to a cozy library and student gathering space, and upgrades to the grounds to create a unified campus feeling.  We learned of significant enrollment growth in recent years, of intentionally small class sizes to most effectively serve their student population.

More commonly, “the devil is in the details,” but on this occasion I saw the divine there too. Beyond mere bricks and mortar, that foundational spirit of the nuns who arrived in the wilderness in 1845 persists in St. Martin, OH. Decorative touches, imbued with historical faith, suggest the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

A large framed photo of Sr. Julia Chatfield, leader of the original nuns, is displayed prominently along with other historical images and documents in the atrium of the classroom building.  Built-in cabinets in the conference room were constructed from the wood of the old water tower.

Outside, on the newly created green space between buildings, sits a large stone bench engraved with a quote from Sr. Julia.  It was constructed out of limestone preserved from the entryway of the original building when it was demolished.

Dark-stained wood shelves from the original building hold books in one room of the renovated library.  An adjacent alcove where the sun streamed in through an arched leaded-glass window features wing chairs and reading material on Julia Chatfield and Angela Merici, 15th century founder of the Ursuline order.

These decorative details of history, usefully brought forward, allow the past to inform the present without weighing down the future.  I wonder now if what I have called the spirit of the founders may be more accurately named the divine spirit blowing through creation. Perhaps these sisters in this place have been so in tune with Spirit that its presence becomes more tangible to all.

Make no mistake.  This is not some sentimental piety on their part.  I’m talking about a gritty discernment that leads to hopeful choices in the face of severe diminishment in their numbers.  The Ursulines of Brown County clearly exhibit trust despite the wind and waves that buffet them, and it’s an inspiring message for all.

In recognition of their growing alumni community, the College recently inaugurated a homecoming celebration at the St. Martin campus.  The day began with a procession to the nuns’ cemetery to visit the graves of Sr. Julia Chatfield as well as College founder Sr. Miriam Thompson and its first president, Sr. Xavier Ladrigan.  From ancient times to the present, telling stories is the way humankind passes on what’s important.  The narrative of the Ursulines of Brown County, full of persistence and faith despite obstacles, must be encouraging to Chatfield students, most of whom never expected to go to college.  “Big Dreams Come True Here,” is the school’s ad slogan.

Departing down the driveway, we observed a detail that we had missed on the way in – new rows of healthy young oaks, in full autumn color, planted alongside the line of dying ash trees.

Copyright Peg Conway 2010