By Josh Zeller, Communications intern
In her history of the first years of St. Rita School for the Deaf, S. Mary Lewine Pluckebaum—a teacher at the school for 24 years—exclaimed eloquently at the beauty of the location in Evendale, Ohio, on which the facility is built: “It is a picturesque spot. Everywhere the eye rests, it feasts upon the beauty of God’s creation. Since for the deaf all the pleasure of this mortal life must be supplied chiefly by the sight, God, in His infinite wisdom, carefully designed this place for deaf children.”
In the early 1900s, Father Henry J. Waldhaus became a new figure in Cincinnati’s education of the deaf when Archbishop Henry Moeller requested him to devote his services to the deaf of Cincinnati; Moeller asked him to look into building a boarding school to better serve them. He went and studied sign language under S. Mary of the Sacred Heart, and was ordained in 1912. Around the same time, the Sisters of Charity, also at the request of Archbishop Moeller, were asked to supply teachers for the commissioned school, and in 1915, the task was taken on by S. Mary Lewine and S. Margaret Cecilia Dunn, with Father Waldhaus acting as principal. That August, Evendale was selected as the desired location for the new school, and a plot of land was purchased. It was named, at the request of Mother Mary Florence Kent, for St. Rita.
In its early days, the school, low on funds, relied on the buildings that already rested on the property for classrooms and dormitories—the Sisters lived with the girls in one building, and Father Waldhaus lived with the boys in another. S. Mary Lewine remembers of this time, “A true family spirit prevailed. The children looked upon Father Waldhaus as a real father, and upon the Sisters with a motherly affection, and they spared neither time nor effort in making their little charges feel that St. Rita’s was their home …”
Due to a growing class size, and such complications as faulty heating in the old dwellings, a real building was needed. After some delay St. Rita High School was finally opened in the fall of 1923, the first Catholic high school for the deaf in the United States; in 1927, its first class graduated, the year that the state of Ohio awarded the school with accreditation. The new building was dedicated by Archbishop Moeller, the man who had devoted so much of his time and money to the school’s founding and rise, which had given to the deaf community the respect that it deserved, and which society at large denied it.
Father Henry J. Waldhaus (pictured) called upon the Sisters of the Pious Union of Our Lady of Good Counsel to help staff St. Rita School for the Deaf in the 1920s; members of the congregation eventually merged with the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati in 1929.
Beyond Sisters Mary Lewine, Margaret Cecilia, and Hilary Smyth the Sisters of Charity could not at that time supply many more teachers, and the school was in danger of becoming short-staffed. A year after the high school’s opening, Father Waldhaus came up with a solution: he called upon a new congregation called the Sisters of the Pious Union of Our Lady of Good Counsel, which he had formed in 1924. Though it was open to deaf women, it was not founded as a deaf community, but for women who wanted to enter religious life and work with deaf children; however, over the period of its short existence, the congregation grew to include many deaf women.
In the fall of 1924, the six Sisters of the Pious Union “took over the domestic and clerical duties of the institution and several of their number served as teachers,” S. Mary Lewine relates. Just a few months later, the December 1924 issue of The Silent Advocate—the official magazine of St. Rita School—expressed their relief at having these Sisters on staff: “The formation of this new organization has been a Godsend to St. Rita School for the Deaf. With an enrollment nearing double that of last year and with one additional Sister, we would have been overwhelmed had it not been for the Pious Union.”
Throughout the rest of the 1920s, these Sisters ran St. Rita School efficiently and effectively, yet, Father Waldhaus was unable to get the Pious Union official recognition from Rome. In 1929, Archbishop McNicholas, after speaking with Mother Irenaea Fahey, recommended to Father that he merge the Pious Union into the Sisters of Charity Congregation; at that point, the small Order had grown significantly in number. Between 1929 and 1934, 42 women religious entered the Mount St. Joseph Motherhouse from St. Rita School. Despite this change, the Sisters who taught or worked at St. Rita School remained there, as they were so essential to its prosperity.
S. Bernice Marie Scholz ministered 15 years at Cincinnati Good Samaritan Hospital in the food service department.
The Pious Union Sisters added a great deal to the Congregation as they served as Sisters of Charity throughout much of the 20th century. As a young Sister, S. Judith Metz remembers seeing S. Mary Monica Markowitz around the Motherhouse, who was deaf and blind. She navigated the halls of the Motherhouse without problem, and was “very sweet” and kind to all that she met along the way. S. Judy remembers how, every time S. Mary Monica visited the dining hall, she would stop at the chapel and kneel before the Blessed Virgin to say a prayer.
Also, there was S. Bernice Marie Scholz, who invaluably served the deaf community of the Diocese of Gary, Indiana, for five years. She had been struck with deafness at the age of 14 after a battle with scarlet fever, and had decided to enter the Sisters of the Pious Union in 1927. She had started at St. Rita School in 1931, following her entry into the Sisters of Charity in 1929; she taught there for over 40 years. This was followed by 15 years at Good Samaritan Hospital (in Cincinnati, Ohio) in the food service department, where she helped to prepare special meals for diabetic patients.
The call to come to Gary came in 1976. The year before, she had retired to the Motherhouse, and was visiting with family in Wisconsin. Here, she met Bishop Andrew Grutka, who served the Gary diocese. Learning of her years of experience at St. Rita School, he asked if she would come to Indiana in order to help Father Dennis J. Blaney minister to the deaf. She accepted his offer, and at the age of 76, she began a visitation ministry with the deaf in the diocese.
After taking a census, she noted 72 families who had one or more deaf members. She encouraged these individuals to keep attending Mass, and helped prepare younger deaf children for Confession and their First Communion. Because S. Bernice Marie could communicate orally, and was a practitioner of sign language and oralism, she could readily interact with deaf and hearing people alike. She was greatly appreciated by Father Dennis, who related in 1977, “Sister Bernice has great spirit and was much enjoyed by all.”
S. Julia Seton Tenerowicz
S. Julia Seton Tenerowicz had become a Pious Union Sister the same year that S. Bernice Marie did, and had entered the Sisters of Charity in 1931. When she was only 6 years old, she was struck with a bad bout of polio, which resulted in the loss of her hearing. As she grew up, she was a quick and intuitive learner, and skipped the third grade at St. John’s School for the Deaf in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, her hometown. She found that she was particularly talented in the arts, a lifelong passion which she eventually went to school for.
Her love of art found a place for her in St. Rita School for the Deaf in 1932, where she taught arts and crafts, woodworking, and other skills. Throughout her 53 years at St. Rita School for the Deaf, she always cared deeply about her students. Following her 1985 retirement, she continued to create for St. Joseph Center (on the grounds of St. Joseph Home), where she resided until 1992. When S. Julia Seton died on Nov. 7, 2000, she took her former Congregation’s legacy with her, as the last Pious Union Sister living.
When it first opened over a century ago, St. Rita School for the Deaf helped its students to know the peace that its patron finally came to know after years of trial. At a time when the public reaction to the deaf community was disdainful and barely tolerant at best, Father Waldhaus, the Sisters of Charity, and the Sisters of the Pious Union showed them overflowing love and respect. This tradition has continued from then to now, and shows no signs of ceasing, just as its expansion and technological progression into the future shows no signs of slowing down.