The convent holds hidden history

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The convent building still holds much of McNicholas’ charm and history, even though it has changed throughout the years.

The building was designed by the grandson of Samuel Hannaford, the architect of Music Hall, for The Sisters of Saint Joseph.  The sisters moved in and opened St. Joseph’s Academy in 1915, an all-girls boarding school.  The only building of the school was the convent, and it was not until 1953 that the school expanded by building McNicholas Hall, now known as senior hall. Until then, students knew only the convent building as their school.

Before St. Joseph Academy became McNicholas, the convent was home to the nuns and student boarders, as well as the classrooms.

In the last years of St. Joseph’s Academy, while Sister Janet Roesener was there, the third floor was used for classrooms as well as bedrooms for the nuns. In the early years of McNicholas, Class of 1959 graduate Sister Judi Keehnen said that her freshman homeroom was on the third floor.

The second floor also contained classrooms and nuns’ bedrooms.  There was a curtain at one end of the hallway that hid the rest of the nun’s living quarters. Sister Keehnen laughed that students were always trying to sneak behind those green curtains. By the time Sister Keehnen was at McNicholas in the late fifties, there was also a home economics classroom on the second floor of the convent.

While Sister Roesener was at St. Joseph’s, the library was over the front porch of the convent. When Sister Keehnen taught at McNicholas the library was in the present location of Mr. Willy Corbett’s art studio. Eventually the library moved to McNicholas Hall, or senior hall. Mr. Corbett’s current room was then used for the seminar classes, which Sister Keehnen described as the beginning of AP classes.  The basement of the convent was home to the kitchen and dining room for the Sisters.

The convent is not the only thing at McNick that has changed. The property surrounding the convent and the student’s lives have also evolved along with the times. The land around the convent would be unrecognizable now. There was a horseshoe-shaped driveway in front of the convent that was lined with trees, and Sister Roesener said that at one time there was a grape arbor from the present day statue of Mary that went across the parking lot up to the side of the Heritage House.  Current school nurse Mrs. Mary Anne Christmann who was a member of the Class of 1956, said that Beechmont Avenue was only a two lane road until 1958.

Tennis courts once stood where senior hall is located and the nuns had a garden in Paradise in addition to some cows. There was also a chicken coop, and Sister Roesener recalled how they would have “chicken pickin’ parties,” where everyone would have to clean the chickens to eat. She laughed and said, “I don’t know if you’ve ever cleaned a chicken, but it’s not much fun.”    

School life was also different then compared to now.  The girl’s uniforms consisted of a brown pleated skirt with a white Oxford shirt and a brown cardigan. Keehnen said that they all wanted blazers instead of cardigans, but when they finally came she said they were an ugly light brown. Keehnen also mentioned that there was a dumbwaiter in the convent, and students would try to get inside of it to skip class.

Instead of having art classes during school, they were offered after school. Sister Roesener said that there were also inter-school debate competitions.  Students were also familiar with classes such as home economics, woodshop, typing, and shorthand.

By the time Sister Keehnen came to McNicholas, there were football games and Homecomings. She said that they would build huge floats for Homecoming and then there would be a parade all the way from McNicholas to Anderson. Both Sister Roesener and Sister Keehnen said that “sock hop” dances were popular where they would “jitterbug.”

While students are sitting in Spanish class they can almost imagine the nuns living and teaching right there in the convent, which is something that makes McNicholas unique. Even though McNick and the student body is much different now, from when the convent stood alone and the idea of a co-ed Catholic school was new, students will always be connected to the first days of the school every time they go to class in the convent.

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