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Omaha Magazine

The Last Nuns of Duchesne

Aug 26, 2016 05:40PM ● By Carol Crissey Nigrelli

The nuns have left the building. For the first time in the 135-year history of Duchesne Academy, students have no interaction with members of the Religieuses du Sacre Coeur de Jesus (also known as the Society of the Sacred Heart).

That means no nun to greet students at the front door of the all-girls Catholic high school at 36th and Burt streets; no nuns to work the main office, teach in the classroom, or raise an eyebrow at tardy students scampering into the historic red-bricked school. None of it. 

Nuns2Sister Lucy Hayes and Sister JoEllen Sumpter performed those duties (and many more) during their various tenures at Duchesne dating back to the 1950s. But time inevitably forces even the most earnest and dedicated to answer another call, and both sisters heard the call of retirement.

“It’s time,” says Sumpter, 76. “I fell in a freak accident a couple of years ago and hit my head. I lost sight in my right eye.” In addition, mobility problems force her to use a walker.

Hayes, still spry and active at 87, fought the idea of leaving Duchesne. She wanted to continue her daily duties as sacristan, even if it meant living in Omaha alone. But the Society of the Sacred Heart mandates its members live in a religious community. Hayes now looks ahead to mentoring opportunities for both of them at the RSCJ retirement complex in Atherton, California. 

Losing nuns at the Catholic school signals a seismic shift of symbolic importance. The sisters’ departure plans became official in late August, when the provincial leaders of the RSCJs handed over the responsibility of their spiritual vision to the lay administrators and faculty. Students, families, alumnae, and members of the Omaha Archdiocese gathered for the formal ceremony at St. Cecilia Cathedral.

“They’re putting their charisms—or values—into our hands,” says head of school Meg Brudney. “Symbolically, (the Society of the Sacred Heart) no longer has a resource here. But we know their goals and their values. We live them every day.”  Duchesne will remain part of the Sacred Heart network of 22 schools in the U.S., Brudney adds.

Sumpter began living those values—educating the mind and the soul—at a young age. “I started at Duchesne in seventh grade in 1952, went through high school and then college,” she says, referring to the days when the campus included a primary school as well as Duchesne College. “We had some really powerful (nuns) there at the time, with very few lay people teaching.” She majored in biology and eventually earned two advanced degrees.

Hayes, who grew up in Denison, Iowa, also attended Duchesne College, which closed in 1968, and fell in love with learning. “Our teachers tied all the subjects together, and somehow we came into this huge worldview, which just blew my mind,” she says. “It woke me up to, ‘Wow, this is what life is.’”

Both knew at an early age what they wanted to do with their lives, a decision formed by the loving nurture of the nuns at Duchesne. Sitting in their cozy apartment on a tree-lined street in the shadow of St. Cecilia’s, the two weave a fascinating life story that straddles two eras of the Catholic Church. 

“My family had a difficult time, especially my father, who wasn’t Catholic,” explains Sumpter about her decision to enter the Sacred Heart community. “You see, I was an only child."

Which meant no grandchildren?

“You got that right,” she deadpans.

Nuns1Armed with a drama degree in 1951, Hayes immediately left for the convent. “My father wasn’t Catholic, either,” she says.  “When I got on the train, he remarked, ‘You can always come home, you know.’”

But it was a long time before either woman would see their families again. They lived a cloistered life, having very little contact with the outside world except in the Sacred Heart schools where they taught—Sumpter in Lake Forest, Illinois, and Hayes in San Francisco, during which time she earned a master’s degree in history. Prayer, reflection, and Mass filled their highly structured routine.

The winds of change that blew through the Roman Catholic Church in 1965 as a result of the Second Vatican Council also changed the lifestyle of the religious women. Exhorted to “go out into the world,” they left the cloisters and lived among the people they served. Their long, flowing black robes gave way to modern dress.

“A lot of nuns left because they couldn’t adjust,” says Hayes quietly.

The sisters’ paths finally crossed in the early 1990s when both returned to Omaha to be near ailing relatives. They rejoined the severely depleted religious community at Duchesne, filling in as needed in various capacities until they became the only two nuns left.

“We just adore both of them,” says Brudney, a 1983 graduate of Duchesne and one of many alums among the administration and faculty. “The culture of the school is filled with love. It’s a very respectful environment.”

With Duchesne’s enrollment at an all-time high and applicants on a waiting list, the legacies of these gentle, beloved women and all the Sacred Heart nuns who preceded them will no doubt endure.

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