Remembering Cass Avenue

 by Sister Audrey Olsen

On July 12, 2017 a historic St. Louis building - Clemens house on Cass Avenue caught fire. This house was previously owned by Mark Twain's family and then later by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet.  Click here to read more about the fire at Clemens house.  Continue reading to learn more about the CSJ's tie to this historic St. Louis building.  

CSJ Connection to Cass Avenue

A good bit of the history of the Sisters of St. Joseph in St. Louis is attached to Our Lady of Good Counsel convent commonly known as Cass Avenue. The mansion was built by James Clemens, a relative of Mark Twain, on property owned by John Mullanphy whose daughter Eliza married James Clemens. The mansion remained in the Clemens family until 1885 when it was purchased by the Sisters of St. Joseph.

Why did we need a mansion for a convent? The history of St. Louis indicates that all during the 19th century St. Louis grew from a French settlement to an American city with an influx of people from the Southeastern part of the United States and a large numbers of Irish and German immigrants. The Irish were Catholic as were many of the Germans.

During this period of growth, parishes were established and each parish wanted a school for the children. Many new parishes were established in North St. Louis and then in North County. The Sisters of St. Joseph were asked to staff many of these schools. Since the parishes did not provide housing for the sisters, a house big enough to hold the staffs of those schools was needed, hence the purchase of Cass Avenue in 1885 by Mother Agatha Guthrie.

In the beginning, what would become the Deaf Institute occupied part of the building until it moved to new quarters on Garrison Avenue. Over the years, there were from 80 to 100 sisters from as many as 17 parishes living there. A third and fourth floor were added to the rear of the building and in 1896, a large chapel was built on the east side of the house. When Mother Columbine Ryan was appointed the first provincial of the St. Louis provinces in 1917, she took up residence at Cass Avenue since the superior general of the congregation resided at Carondelet.

There are many stories connected with the living arrangements at Cass. Most of the sisters lived in dormitories and it seems that it was very difficult to get the water pressure to reach the third and fourth floors. Sisters were lined up every night trying to get water in their pitchers. It was also very cold in the winter. Sisters called it the ice-box.

In spite of the hardships, there was great camaraderie among the sisters. Since there were many sisters teaching the same grade, there was a great exchange of ideas.

In the early days, the sisters went by horse and buggy to their schools. Later they rode the street cars or were taken by taxi to their school. Sisters also had to take the makings for their noon meal along with their school materials.

The number of staffs living at Cass tended to fluctuate, depending on how soon a parish provided a residence for the sisters. By 1949, it became apparent to the provincial and her council that we no longer needed the mansion for a central convent in North St. Louis. Consequently, we sold 1849 Cass Avenue to the Vincentians who were looking for a larger place because Interstate 55 was being built through their property.

The last professed Sister of St. Joseph to be formally missioned to Cass Avenue was myself, Sister Audrey Olson. I was professed on March 19, 1949, and on Sunday,
March 20 was told that I was to go to Cass that afternoon and begin teaching the fourth grade on Monday at St. Teresa’s school on Grand Avenue. My parents had come to visit on March 20 and they drove me to Cass after having driven up Grand Avenue to get a look at St. Teresa’s.

Upon arriving at Cass, I was greeted by the provincial, Mother Tarcisia Finn, who said that she hoped I did not bring my trunk because we would be moving on Saturday to Carondelet. I assured her that I only had a suitcase with me.

That evening, I was given the lesson plan book of the sister whose place I was taking. It wasn’t very helpful because all it said was: “Religion,” and a page number, “Arithmetic,” page number, and so on. Keep in mind that we had had no courses in classroom management or practice teaching. You can imagine what those two and half months were like!

At the end of the week, those of us at Cass who still did not have a parish convent went to Carondelet. St. Teresa’s and Holy Rosary were the two who were still waiting for the parish residences to open.

The Vincentians lived at Cass until 1979 when they gave it to the Catholic Worker House community. For a number of years it had been a vacant building waiting to be renovated as part of a larger project. Unfortunately, perhaps by arson, an immense fire during the night of July 12 consumed the building and the chapel.

We still have Cass Avenue alive in our history. At Nazareth Living Center, the hall between McGovern Commons and the chapel is named Cass Avenue, where stands the statue of Our Lady of Good Counsel from the Cass Avenue chapel.


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