From the Archives: SND at the School for the Blind

Posted on: September 26, 2014 4:00 pm
Tags: Archives

Sr. Mary Francello discusses her time teaching at the school for the blind.

On the first floor of the St. Joseph Heights Provincial Center, just past the mail room and several steps before the library, you will find a display prepared by Sr. Joan Terese Niklas, archivist for the Sisters of Notre Dame. The display, updated every two months, depicts events, individuals, and special occasions from the Covington Sisters of Notre Dame history. News clippings, photos, and artifacts take us back to moments that shaped who the Sisters of Notre Dame are today.

In early September, Sr. Mary Joan Terese transitioned the display to chronicle the service Sr. Mary Bernard Clare Budde and Sr. Mary Francello Orth ministered in the late 1950’s and the 1960’s at the Mother of God and the Sacred Heart Schools for the Blind in Northern Kentucky. Sr. Mary Bernard Clare taught at Mother of God School from 1958-1962 and Sacred Heart School from 1962-1966. Sr. Mary Francello taught at Mother of God School from 1961-1962 and Sacred Heart School from 1962-1966. Both Sisters were dedicated to teaching students who were blind and helping them successfully navigate in a sighted world.

While the Sisters of Notre Dame served at the Mother of God School for the Blind, teachers and administrators jotted daily notes about the school’s goings-on. After perusing the “Mother of God Annals,” Sr. Mary Joan Terese compiled entries related to the history of the school and progress of its students, which she added to the display in St. Joseph Heights.  Several of these excerpts can be found below.

In addition to the daily journaling, the SND archival display also included a piece from Clovernook Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Cincinnati, OH. Clovernook graciously shared their Brailled version of the Book of Isaiah, which was prepared on 11”x11” paper and measures almost 3 inches thick. On September 17, 2014, Jessica Salyers and Catie Turner from the Development Office at Clovernook, visited the Sisters of Notre Dame to view the display and learn more about how the sisters served those who were blind.

Although the schools for the blind have been discontinued, the Sisters of Notre Dame continue to minister to and pray for those who are underserved, marginalized, or overlooked.

History of SND at the School for the Blind

In 1957-1958, Srs. M. Leopolda and Roselyn served the students at Mother of God School who were blind. Sr. Mary Leopolda was the Braille Instructor and Sr. Mary Roselyn the Occupational Therapist.

Continuing the path Srs. Mary Leopolda and Mary Roselyn began, Sr. M. Bernard Clare and Sr. M. Francello  attended special classes in Washington, D.C. and also began instructing the children who were blind.

Srs. M. Francello and Bernard Clare’s first goal for any new student was to bring life into his or her fingers with agility exercises. Doing so truly put the world at their fingertips, as this helped the student to read and write Braille. In one of the exercises, students began by rolling a bead the size of a marble across their fingers. At each session, the students tapered down and rolled a bead slightly smaller until the bead was the size of a dot. At this point, the students could pick up reading Braille in no time.

With this new skill, the students were able to stay on track with their studies and progress just as quickly as their sighted classmates. Sr. M. Francello described a time that one of their students expressed an interest in attending Notre Dame Academy. In order to enroll, all students had to pass the entrance exam. Sr. M. Bernard Clare, appreciating the goals of this student, translated the exam into Braille. Thanks to the student’s academic preparation, she got in!

In 1962 the School for the Blind was moved to Sacred Heart School in Bellevue. The third floor of the convent was renovated to provide living space for Srs. M. Bernard Clare and Francello. In addition, a work-room was provided for the Braille equipment and two classrooms within the school were available to the students of the School for the Blind.

Until 1966, when Sr. M. Bernard Clare was appointed principal of Sacred Heart School, she continued to minister with the students who were blind. Sr. Francello continued to work with the children until 1968 when the school was discontinued due to low enrollment. The decline in enrollment, however, was good news! In the 1940s and 1950s, premature babies were given oxygen treatment to prevent blindness. Unfortunately, this particular treatment actually resulted in vision problems (Silverman, 1985). Once this phenomenon was realized and addressed, the demand for our services lessened.

Excerpts from the “Mother of God Annals”

December 10, 1958  – Investiture of Monsignor John Elsaesser

Father John Elsaesser was honored as a Papal Chamberlain having the title of Very Reverend Monsignor. Since he is director of our special education schools, the children who were blind tried to honor him in their way by Brailling a spiritual bouquet and congratulatory wishes on a paper cut in the form of a Monsignor’s robe. They proudly presented it to Monsignor on one of his visits. He in turn surprised them with a special free day on the day of his Investiture.

May 7, 1961  - First Holy Communion

...A little child from the Braille Class was among the number of the happy recipients. When the children went to the sanctuary to receive Our Lord for the first time, no one – except those who knew – noticed any difference between the little blind child and the others. We who knew, noticed the measured steps as she walked slowly from the altar down toward the three steps which led to the body of the church. She and her partner touched elbows and then walked down the steps together.

The mother of the child who was blind was very grateful that her little girl could be just like the rest of the children. She thanked all concerned, and to the little girl who was her daughter’s partner, she wrote, “My Kathy could be just like the rest, because you let her see with your eyes.”

September 5, 1961  - Opening of School

...The former front room was to be occupied by Villa Madonna College for classes in physics. According to the wishes of Monsignor John S. Elsaesser, another classroom was opened for the children who were blind. The increased enrollment and the great amount of individual attention demanded by each pupil necessitated this. Sr. M. Bernard Clare, who had trained the greater majority of these children for years – by herself – continued in her regular resource room having grades 3, 4, and 5 (a group of 9 children). Assisting her in the front room was Sr. M. Francello, having grades1 and 2  (a group of 8 children). The children were eager to return to school and happy to have another classroom. Gradually, the rooms were equipped for a happy school year.

October 8, 1965Firemen Visit Sacred Heart School

Although this was Fire Prevention Week, we were surprised on this day when the fire alarm sounded at 9:30 a.m. Again the firemen praised our children for the near-perfect evacuation of our buildings in 69 seconds. They commented favorably on the disabled children who were assisted by their classmates without any appreciable slowing down of the departure from the building.

June 7, 1968Last Day of School

  • Closing of Classes for the Blind!
  • During the 1950’s and 1960’s blindness had been rampant with premature babies.
  • Minimal enrollment in 1968 indicated the good news that the former problem of the oxygen level in the incubators of premature babies had been solved.
  • The Sisters of Notre Dame had served the needs of children who were blind from 1957 to 1968.

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