Rhodes, Mary (c. 1782–1853)

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Rhodes, Mary (c. 1782–1853)

American Roman Catholic nun and co-founder of the Sisters of Loretto. Born in or around 1782 in Maryland; died at Loretto, Kentucky, on February 27, 1853; one of seven children (two girls and five boys) of Abraham Rhodes (a planter and slave owner) and Elizabeth Rhodes; educated by the Nuns of the Visitation in Georgetown (now Washington, D.C.); never married; no children.

Moved to Kentucky (1811); with Reverend Charles Nerinckx, founded the Sisters of Loretto (1812); served as mother superior (1812–22).

Mary Rhodes was born in Maryland in or around 1782, one of the last of the seven children of Abraham and Elizabeth Rhodes . The Rhodes were Catholic, and Maryland had originally been founded as a haven for Catholics, although they soon lost the upper hand there. Rhodes received her education in Georgetown, Maryland (now Washington, D.C.), from the Nuns of the Visitation. Few details are known about her life before 1811. That year, around age 29, Rhodes went to the Kentucky frontier to visit her brother Bennet, who lived southeast of Bardstown in a community on Hardin's Creek which had been founded by a group of Maryland Catholics in 1786. During her stay, Rhodes found that her brother's children were lacking in secular and religious education and began teaching them. When neighbors asked her to teach their children as well, she consulted with a local missionary priest, Reverend Charles Nerinckx, and the two agreed to open a school for girls. As enrollment at the school increased, Rhodes found assistance from two local women, Christina Stuart and Anne Havern .

Initially the teachers lived with Rhodes' brother, but the hustle and bustle of his family and friends drove them to an old cabin near the school. Before long, the three women agreed to consecrate their lives, and their educational work, to God. Nerinckx designed a "simple but rigorous rule" for the nascent order and named Rhodes its temporary head. After the rule was approved by Bishop Benedict J. Flaget, on April 25, 1812, Nerinckx formally named their new community Friends of Mary at the Foot of the Cross, and Rhodes and the others took the veil. (The first American order of nuns had been founded only three years earlier, in Maryland, by Elizabeth Ann Seton .)

The new group, one of the first orders of Roman Catholic nuns on the frontier, soon added three more members. One of these was Rhodes' sister Ann Rhodes , who was elected the first mother superior despite being younger than the other members. After her death from consumption only months later, on December 11, 1812, she was replaced by Mary Rhodes, who would serve as mother superior until 1822.

Rhodes and her fellow nuns took their final vows on August 15, 1813. During the ten years that Rhodes acted as mother superior, she established the policies and aims of the community, which was devoted to education. Under her leadership, the campus was expanded and the chapel there became known as "Little Loretto," after the shrine in Loreto, Italy, reputed to be the miraculously transported home of Mary the Virgin . The community adopted the name, and ever since has been known as the Sisters of Loretto at the Foot of the Cross. Although its first months had been spent in abject poverty, the order quickly increased its landholdings, and local novices flocked to join to such an extent that at one point the Sisters of Loretto drew the wrath of local families who did not want their daughters withdrawing from the world. Three sister houses had been opened in Kentucky by 1819, and some 30 years later there were branches in Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri as well, all devoted to providing Catholic education to children. The original community, which in 1824 had moved some seven miles from its first location, gave its name to the town of Loretto, Kentucky.

Nearly blind in her last years, Rhodes died on February 27, 1853, at the motherhouse of Loretto after 41 years of service as a nun. By the mid-years of the 20th century, there were 70 Loretto communities in the United States.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

Maria Sheler Edwards , freelance writer, Ypsilanti, Michigan