Stories from the Archives

Remembering the IHM Motherhouse

For sixty years it was each sister’s first IHM home. A look back at the IHM Motherhouse, its history, and its loss.

This was the Motherhouse. For sixty years it was each sister’s first IHM home. It was where we discovered the IHM charism and where we professed our vows; where we returned for retreats and summer school sessions; where our leadership resided and served; where we learned traditional hymns and songs; where we rejoiced together and mourned together and came to love one another; where many IHMs finally handed their lives back to our Loving God. This was home.

Early years

The story of the IHM Motherhouse begins in 1893 when Mother Mary Magdalen Jackson purchased the original thirty acres of the campus. The plan was to build a motherhouse large enough to accommodate the sisters and students from Saint Cecelia’s Academy and all the postulants and novices.

In 1899, Mother Mary Crescentia Foster conducted the ground-breaking and the laying of the cornerstone and in 1901 Mother Cyril Conway set out to complete the building. Three or four days a week Mother Cyril would travel from St. Cecilia’s to the building site to make sure that all agreed plans were being followed. During a strike of the trolley drivers, she walked to the site.

Almost immediately, the plans for the Motherhouse were challenged by the Lackawanna and Wyoming Valley Railroad who wanted to employ eminent domain to run a track right past the Motherhouse. Mother Cyril successfully pled the Congregation’s case and the railroad company dropped the plan. In thanksgiving, the Congregation dedicated a shrine honoring our Lady of Victory on the campus.

On being moved to the Motherhouse, St. Cecilia’s Academy was renamed to Mount St. Mary’s Academy and later to Marywood Seminary.

During the first decade of the Motherhouse’s history, the Congregation embraced the education and formation of other congregations namely, the Sisters of St. Casimir and the Sisters of SS. Cyril and Methodius. Mother Cyril led this initiation at the Motherhouse and sent IHM sisters to accompany the new sisters in the early years of their journey.

By 1911 the Congregation had raised enough money to adorn the Motherhouse chapel. Murals and ceiling paintings were created, stained glass windows were put in place, and a pipe organ was designed and installed.

New uses

In 1915, Marywood College (now University) opened. All classes and student residences were located in the Motherhouse. Marywood was the first women’s college in Northeast Pennsylvania, second only to Bryn Mahr in the entire state. It was also the first Catholic women’s college in Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania became one of the most afflicted states by the influenza pandemic of 1918. The IHM sisters took responsibility for taking care of sufferers in the nearby town of Throop. At the end of 1918 the Burgers of Throop visited the Motherhouse and presented testimonials of gratitude for the thirteen sisters who “voluntarily quitting their safe and peaceful pursuits, and despising death, came like ministering angels into the plague-riddled Town of Throop. . . to alleviate pain and restore health.”

In 1919, Marywood’s first international students came to live and study at the Motherhouse; two French young women, who could not complete their studies in their war-torn country.

Major changes of the activities in the Motherhouse took place in 1924 and 1926, when first all college classes were moved to the newly-built Liberal Arts Building and then college residents moved to the new O’Reilly Hall (now Regina Hall).

In 1931, Marywood campus was designated the diocesan site of celebration of the 1500th anniversary of the Council of Ephesus. Apostolic Delegate Pietro Fumasoni Biondi represented Pope Pius XI.

Throughout the 1930s, efforts were made to repair the campus land that had been damaged by excessive mining under the surface. This effort to eliminate the threat of subsidence of the land was completed gradually as funds became available.

As part of the IHM Centennial, in 1945 Apostolic Delegate, Amleto Cicognani, visited the Motherhouse.  Four Sisters welcomed him in Italian: Sisters Celesta Sinici, Regina Barrett, Paracleta Gallagher, and Margaret Loftus. All the novices sang to him some Italian songs. All were trained by Marywood faculty member Wanda Persichetti.

After World War II and into the 1960s, there was a great increase in the number of applicants to the Congregation; groups of fifty entered, and professions numbered forty.

Over the years many sisters departed from the Motherhouse to missions throughout the United States. In 1965 four sisters set out to launch the IHM mission to Peru.

The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) inspired important changes in the spirituality and daily life of the sisters. Chapel renovations and liturgical renewal were undertaken.

Motherhouse fire

On February 21-22, 1971, fifty years ago, the IHM Motherhouse burned down. All the sisters were evacuated from the burning building, several rescued by the fire fighters from numerous regional fire-fighting companies. Seven sisters who lived near the original site of the fire had to jump from the fourth floor to the roof of a first floor porch, suffering multiple injuries.

In addition to the fire fighters, many came to the rescue. College students welcomed sisters to the residence halls. Some faculty members spent the night hosing down the Liberal Arts Building roof to prevent the spread of the fire.

As morning dawned with the fire lighting the entire sky, the neighbors rushed to the sisters’ aid, bringing money, clothes, and an abundance of necessities that to those who had left all behind in escaping the fire.

The sisters relocated to several other campus buildings: the Junior Professed moved to the Novitiate building; the other sisters to Marian Convent. In the next few years, the Novitiate building was repurposed and redesigned to become the IHM Center with many of the displaced sisters moving to the top floor of the building.

Marywood Seminary, which had become a day school, was moved to the IBEW building to complete the school year, after which it was closed.

Every IHM sister was affected by the loss of the Motherhouse. The word went out throughout the nation, bringing grief to each. The entire Congregation united in mourning this community treasure.

Motherhouse Memorials

In the years since the fire, the site has been memorialized in a number of ways. In 1976, the nation’s bicentennial, a time capsule was placed on the Motherhouse grounds and above it was erected a pedestal with an engraving of the Motherhouse.

In a major construction completed in 2015, the centenary of the University’s founding, a Memorial Commons was created, honoring the IHM sisters on the Motherhouse site. At the very spot where the altar of the Motherhouse chapel, a memorial fountain was placed. The alumna of Marywood Seminary also established a memorial on the commons, acknowledging their appreciation for the excellent education they had received.

This was the Motherhouse, fondly remembered and celebrated, a symbol of the roots we lovingly share, and from which we face the future with hope and confidence.

“Fidelity to the past means to accept what is new, which is the fruit of the seed planted in the past.”

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