In 1959, south Columbus caught the eye of Catholic leaders in Ireland, who saw potential mission work here in a school. The main draw, as they saw it, was Fort Benning and the growing industrialization and expansion in the wider community.
Our Lady Of Lourdes Catholic Church was built in 1958, in close proximity to Fort Benning. Archbishop O’Hara originally intended to send Irish nuns in the Ursuline order to Savannah to run a “catechetical centre,” for spiritual formation. He received another suggestion from the diocese that a Catholic school on Columbus’ south side was needed as well.
The archbishop agreed, and four nuns prepared for flight to their new mission post. A fifth, their Superior, accompanied them but didn’t stay.
As Our Lady Of Lourdes School prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary, many who were and are associated with the school are reminiscing. One history book in the principal’s office details the early days of the mission.
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“Dread anticipation mingled with a wonderful spirit of adventure as the August days slipped by. Previous American foundations made by this community were recalled; we hoped and prayed that this time the new foundation would meet with greater success,” one nun wrote in “The Ursulines of Cork: 1771-96” by Sis. Ursula Clarke, OSU.
The Ursulines are a religious order founded in 1535 by St. Angela de Merici for the sole purpose of educating young girls. It was the first teaching order of women established in the Church, and up to now has adhered strictly to the work of its institute, according to The Catholic Encyclopedia.
The five Ursuline sisters arrived Aug. 24, 1960. They were: The Rev. Mother Baptist Brennan (Superior), Sister Immaculata Twomey, Sister Paul Thomas, Sister Margaret Mary O’Dwyer and Sister Joseph Murphy. The new school was dedicated Sept. 28, with an address by Bishop Thomas McDonough of this diocese.
By September 1963, the school had 370 students. Enrollment then dropped sharply after the Vietnam War. Now as then, the student body reflects the larger culture in race and nationality, in part because of the post’s influence.
“It’s very diverse,” which will help students get along with other races and cultures as they age, said Diana Hankins, the principal since 2002.
Hankins is a Catholic convert from the Episcopal Church. She and her family moved to Columbus in 1985 when her husband transferred with the U.S. Army. “We had to find a church home. We settled on Lourdes because it just felt right for us,” she said.
Hankins taught at Georgetown Elementary, then East Columbus Magnet Academy before becoming principal at Lourdes.
“We’ve always plodded along, but we’re a bit under the radar,” Hankins said of the school. “We’re not the most known, and yet I’ll see people at the store who tell me things like, ‘My sister went to Our Lady Of Lourdes.’ We’ve been a positive influence in the community for a long time, but we’re not necessarily well-known.”
Offering grades K-8, Our Lady Of Lourdes has 114 students and 20 faculty and staff this year.
Columbus also has St. Anne-Pacelli School, which runs K-12th grades; and Phenix City has two Catholic elementary schools: St. Patrick’s and Mother Mary.
To Hankins, at least two things set the school apart: “The small classes allow for better home and school coordination and it works really well for students. We have a closeness and caring that touches all our lives,” she said. Secondly, with most of the student body and staff familiar with military life, “particularly with deployments, we know what effect that has on students and we can reach out to them.”
Like many local churches, schools and businesses, Our Lady Of Lourdes wonders what effect the Base Realignment and Closure will have on them. Hankins wants her student body to grow, but not at the expense of the family feel. About 30,000 military personnel and their families will be moving in through the end of the year from Fort Knox, Ky. Some are here already.
“We’ve seen an increased interest through e-mail and phone calls,” she said.
That close-knit community still makes Colin Martin of Columbus nostalgic. He graduated from Our Lady Of Lourdes in 1980, one in a class of 19. About half of the students, including him, went on to Pacelli High School.
“It was the best atmosphere you could ever hope to grow up in. Everybody knew everybody,” said Martin, who left for college and later came back to town. He works for the Chamber of Commerce. Martin called his classmates “the best friends of my life. We all understand each other.” He remembers his parents paid $44 a month in tuition. Five of the seven children of Earl and Alice Martin went to Our Lady Of Lourdes. Alice Martin taught there one year.
Colin Martin remembers one of the nuns, in his presence, referring to her as “your sainted mother.”
The four nuns left in 1997, retiring to Ireland, but not before Martin had them as teachers for three years.
“I never quite got over that,” he said, joking.
The school’s name comes from Church teaching that the Virgin Mary (“Our Lady”) appeared 18 times to Bernadette Soubirous, a young peasant girl in Lourdes, France, in 1858.
Our Lady revealed herself as the Immaculate Conception, asked that a chapel be built on the site of the vision, and told the girl to drink from a fountain in the grotto, according to material on the school’s Web site. No fountain was visible, but when Bernadette dug at a spot designated by the apparition, a spring began to flow. The water from this still flowing spring has shown remarkable healing power, though it contains no curative property that science can identify.
Lourdes has become the most famous modern shrine of Our Lady.
Allison Kennedy, 706-576-6237