Civil War-era school in West Virginia is left to only memory
The wounds remain fresh for many who walked the halls of Mount de Chantal Visitation Academy, which fell nearly a year ago.
The Civil War-era school in Wheeling will be commemorated in a documentary, “For Mind and Spirit,” scheduled to be screened on Thursday at Wheeling Jesuit University.
“It will make them sad, I think, but also very proud,” said Sister Joanne Gonter, who lived for most of her life at the all-girls school as a student and teacher.
Wheeling Hospital bought the 30-acre, hilltop property last year. The school's eclectic architecture showed influences of Baroque and Victorian styles, and earned the school a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.
“The Mount was like a home to me — so much more than just a high school,” said Terri Falconi German, 53, who graduated in 1976 and lives in Mt. Washington and Naples, Fla. “It changed my life for the better. I made lifelong friends, and the sisters were like family. I will never forgive Wheeling Hospital for tearing her down.”
The building deteriorated so badly that the hospital couldn't afford to fix it, hospital spokesman Gregg Warren said. Ceilings were caving in, a section of hallway on an upper floor pulled away from the wall, years of water leaks invaded woodwork, and asbestos lay throughout the building, he said.
“To the sisters' credit, they did the best they could as far as keeping the education going, with books and supplies,” Warren said.
Demolition began in November.
“I felt it as a physical blow when it came down,” said Karla Boos, founder of the East End-based Quantum Theater, a 1979 graduate of The Mount, as students nicknamed it.
Although nuns ran the school, they weren't the ruler-toting, knuckle-whacking sort.
“Love is the kind of thing that motivates people,” Gonter said.
Her order, the Sisters of the Visitation, follows the teachings of St. Francis de Sales, a saint known for his gentility, she said.
“We were respected as individuals, and we were held to a very high standard,” Boos said. “There was a great respect for art. That building was full of art and full of the encouragement that art-making should be a part of education. ...There was a fantastic music program, an exquisite music hall.”
Graduates of the music program are heirs of sorts to the acclaimed Sister Mary Agnes Gubert — born Louise Gubert — who arrived at the school about 10 years after its 1848 founding.
“We used to boast that our school was older than the diocese and the state,” Gonter said. West Virginia became a state in 1863 and the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston formed in 1850.
Gubert was “probably the most noted teacher of vocal music connected with the Roman Catholic sisterhood in this country, and the possessor of a phenomenal voice, which would have made her one of the brightest lyric stars of modern times,” said her 1882 obituary in The New York Times.
Hungarian composer and pianist Franz Liszt heard her in Wheeling and praised her as the greatest known female singer in the world, the obituary said.
She drew students from throughout the country. “From that time on, the music department was really something special,” Gonter said.
When the nuns founded the school, no trains ran to Wheeling, so they rode a stagecoach for the journey's final leg. The nativist, anti-Catholic movement gripping much of the country extended into Wheeling.
“They were objects, shall we say, of anti-Catholic sentiment. Yet the people of Wheeling were smart enough to realize you should give your daughter a good education, even if you had to send her to school with nuns,” Gonter said.
“They were brave women,” Boos said.
Gonter grew up two miles from the school and enrolled as a freshman in 1948. After graduating in 1952, she entered the order. She lived at The Mount until it closed in 2010, when she and the other four remaining nuns left for Washington where her predecessors' journey began nearly 150 years earlier.
During her decades at Mount de Chantal, Gonter said, the development of the space program changed how she taught chemistry and physics; Vatican II changed the way she and her sisters lived; the economy whittled away Wheeling's population and the number of students.
“It has not been easy to see this happen,” Gonter said. As enrollment dwindled in the 1970s and '80s, the nuns opened a Montessori preschool and a co-ed elementary school. “We did everything we could to keep it alive.”
The last graduating class, in 2008, had 11 students, about a fourth as many as at its peak in the 1980s.
“It was created from a lot of effort and courage, and it lived so long,” Boos said.
Wheeling Hospital hasn't decided what to do with the property, Warren said. The hospital restored the cemetery where about 170 sisters are buried. Workers put footers under the headstones, several of which were sinking or falling over, and cleaned up the grounds. The first sister was buried there in 1853; the last two in 2009, Gonter said. Its restoration is a comfort, she said.
“Those were the people who made it what it was, and what it is.”
Mike Wereschagin is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7900 or firstname.lastname@example.org.