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Our Rich History: Historical perspective and focus — the fine arts at Villa Madonna College

By Paul A. Tenkotte
Special to NKyTribune

Part 80 of our series, “Retrospect and Vista II”: Thomas More College/University, 1971–2021

Founded in 1921, Villa Madonna College (VMC) evolved from a Benedictine teachers’ college to a diocesan women’s college staffed by three Catholic women’s religious orders, and then to a coeducational institution after World War II. In the interim, the Great Depression of the 1930s plummeted the world into economic calamity. Then, World War II erupted, the most disastrous conflict in human history, ending in the detonation of the world’s first nuclear weapons. Beset by the trials and tribulations of the world, colleges and universities throughout the United States hunkered down, and did their best to keep their doors open. Not all institutions would survive the economic and political roller coaster rides of the early twentieth century.

Sr. Mary Carlotta Sibler, S.N.D., 1947. (TMU Archives)

Fortunately, Villa Madonna College survived, held together by the dedicated religious sisters, priests and lay faculty who sacrificed worldly riches to place excellent teaching and student success at the very core of their beings. The VMC campus itself, stretching between the old St. Joseph Church (northwest corner of 12th and Greenup Streets) and the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption in Covington, Kentucky, consisted of an unassuming assemblage of nineteenth and early-twentieth century buildings housing a girls’ academy, an abandoned fire station, and well-worn commercial and residential buildings repurposed as classrooms and laboratories. It was a commuter campus located along electric streetcar (later, bus) lines, within blocks of the Ohio and Licking Rivers and within view of the bustling city of Cincinnati, Ohio. Ironically, the campus reflected the faculty and students themselves—thrifty yet focused working-class people, some newly arrived immigrants and others first-generation Americans—struggling to better themselves and their community. They were Catholics making their way into the American middle class.

For wealthier families, Catholic sisters operated colleges to educate and refine young ladies for limited career opportunities in early twentieth-century society. For instance, Sacred Heart College in Cincinnati’s posh Clifton neighborhood was such an institution. Villa Madonna College was not. Hence, art, theatre, and music did not take center stage in the early years at VMC. Those programs, while valuable for a foundational liberal arts education itself, were not seen as practical employment possibilities for many working-class Americans. Ironically, the Great Depression favored neither rich nor poor, so frugality and practicality could actually prove somewhat of an advantage, as in the case of VMC. On the other hand, one of the Great Depression’s victims was the college division (not K-12) of Sacred Heart in Cincinnati, which announced in 1935 that it would be closing due to “financial and enrollment difficulties” (“Convent College to Close in June,” Cincinnati Post, May 16, 1935, p. 5).

Sr. Mary Marcella Fedders, O.S.B., 1947. (TMU Archives)

For those desiring to be artists and actors in the early 1900s, training did not necessarily occur at traditional colleges and universities. Instead, they learned from others in their professions. In the case of artists, some chose to study at specialized art institutes, such as the Art Academy of Cincinnati. Originally founded as the McMicken School of Design in 1869, the Art Academy of Cincinnati was established—like other schools of design at its time—specifically “to train young ‘artist-designers’ to improve industrially made products by merging training in drawing with the emerging field of design” (Rebecca Wright Bilbo, “Academic or Industrial: Educating the Artist in Nineteenth-Century Cincinnati,” PhD dissertation, Indiana University, 2016, p. 3).

Living in the shadow of the Art Academy of Cincinnati was only part of Villa Madonna College’s early Fine Arts story. Originally established to train religious sisters to become teachers, VMC sensibly focused on courses such as School Art. By 1928–1929, Sr. Mary Carlotta Sibler, S.N.D. (1903–1985) was listed as heading “School Art” at VMC. Impressive for women of her time period, she held a master’s degree in Fine Arts (MFA). Sr. Carlotta resided at St. Joseph Heights, the provincial motherhouse of the Sisters of Notre Dame, in Park Hills, Kentucky. There, in 1949, she and three students of her “figure drawing class” (Pauline Arata, Virginia Molloy, and Mary Sue Krippenstapel) painted a Madonna and Child as part of the main reredos altar of the convent’s chapel. The life-size painting, six feet tall and two feet wide, illustrated the Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child, whose outspread arms embraced the world. Clearly, art and religion were complementary. Or perhaps expressed differently, art could be the handmaiden of religion (Saelinger, p. 7; “A Pleasant Surprise . . . ,” Kentucky Post, December 17, 1949, p. 2).

Throughout the early history of the Art, Music, and Theatre programs at VMC, two basic themes echoed and reechoed. First, the importance of training teachers in art and music was underscored. Second, art, music and theatre were seen as interrelated with the Catholic liturgy. They were, in fact, part and parcel of Catholic liturgical arts. Hence, a figure drawing class at secular institutions of higher learning of the era probably looked quite different from Sr. Carlotta’s class that executed a life-size painting of the Madonna and Child.

Paralleling that of Art, the Music program at VMC was a relative latecomer. Likewise, it also fell within the shadow of well-established educational institutions in Cincinnati. The Cincinnati Conservatory of Music was founded in 1867, and the College of Music of Cincinnati in 1878. In 1955, these two schools merged into the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, and then, in 1962, were incorporated into the University of Cincinnati. Not surprisingly, VMC focused on School Music, which by 1928–1929 was taught by Sr. M. Inez Haley, O.S.B. (Saelinger, p. 7).

Delta Psi Omega (ΔΨΩ), 1957. TMU Archives.

By the 1940s, Sr. Mary Marcella Fedders, O.S.B. (1898–1983) had joined the Music faculty, where she remained until the 1971–1972 academic year. Sr. Marcella was a graduate of the Cincinnati College of Music, located next door to Cincinnati’s magnificent Music Hall. She received her bachelor’s degree there in ceremonies at the end of the 1938–1939 academic year, and her master’s in Music, with a specialty in Gregorian Chant, in 1942. Highly trained for her era, Sr. Marcella was also a member of a well-respected Catholic family. Her brother, Monsignor Edward L. Fedders, became the first man born in the Diocese of Covington to be named a Bishop. Another brother, Fr. Albert Fedders, was a missionary priest in China, and two of her siblings, like her, became Benedictine Sisters of Covington (Sr. M. Viola Fedders, O.S.B. and Sr. M. Mark Fedders, O.S.B.) (“Forty-Two in Class at College of Music,” Cincinnati Enquirer, June 19, 1939, p. 20; “Degrees and Diplomas Given to 35 Students at College of Music Commencement Exercise,” Cincinnati Enquirer, June 13, 1942, p. 8; VMC College Catalogue, 1943–1944; TMC College Catalogue, 1971–1972; “New Bishop’s Consecration This Morning,” Cincinnati Enquirer, Kentucky edition, December 12, 1963, p. 2; “Short Illness Claims Life of Frank Fedders,” Kentucky Post, May 10, 1947, p. 1).

VMC also offered extracurricular opportunities for students to engage their musical talents. By the mid-1950s, the college had a large “mixed” (both men and women) chorus. Numbering sixty people, it was under the “direction of William George Higdon,” and was accustomed to offering varied public programs “ranging from grand opera to spirituals.” Higdon also served as Musical Director at Blessed Sacrament Church in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky (“Villa Chorus to Offer Annual Spring Concert,” Kentucky Post, May 17, 1955, p. 6; “World Sodality Day Plans Being Made,” Kentucky Post, April 27, 1955, p. 1).

Professor Celeste O’Shaughnessy, 1956. (TMU Archives)

Like the Art and Music programs, Theatre had a slow start at VMC. Those wishing to be actors usually had opportunities to attend acting classes at Cincinnati’s popular theaters. In addition, both the College of Music and the Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati offered elocution and drama classes. Further, opportunities for amateur acting in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Covington were readily available by the late 1930s, through an inter-parish Catholic Theatre Guild of Northern Kentucky (“In Dramatic Studios,” Cincinnati Enquirer, February 7, 1909, p. C3; advertisement for Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, Cincinnati Post, September 9, 1922, p. 2; Rev. Paul Ryan, History of the Diocese of Covington, Kentucky, 1954, pp. 943-944).

By the late 1940s, Villa Madonna College began to sponsor seasonal productions of Players, Inc., a “national repertory company” composed of “former students of the speech and drama department of the Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C.” The Players brought legitimate theatre to the limelight for Northern Kentuckians and Catholics (“Players Inc. Cast to be in Covington,” Kentucky Post, November 20, 1952, p. 1).

In Fall 1957, VMC was ready to launch a “‘drama laboratory’ experiment.” Sponsored by the college’s chapter of the national theatre honor society, Delta Psi Omega (ΔΨΩ), and directed by the Rev. Elmer Moore, the college presented a one-act play entitled Good Medicine, by Jack Arnold and Edwin Burke. It featured “three different characterizations of the lead role,” by students Dennis Hagan, Charles Butler, and Art Moeller. Also part of the cast was Sandra Cuni, later a Professor of English at VMC/TMC (“Villa Drama Students to Give Comedy,” Kentucky Post, November 28, 1957, p. 32).

The VMC dramatic fraternity continued to stage productions. Lacking an auditorium of their own, the extra-curricular group held plays at neighboring Catholic schools, including the auditoriums of the Cathedral Lyceum (elementary school) and LaSalette Academy, both in Covington. By 1962, the popularity of these plays prompted VMC to establish a committee to study the “development of Dramatic Studies” at the college. Composed of President Rev. John Murphy, Academic Dean Rev. Anthony Deye, Director of Development Richard F. Gibeau, and English Professor Ron Mielech, the committee issued a report in January 1963. It recommended that a new Villa Players be established under the direct tutelage of the college, replacing the former dramatics fraternity. The Villa Players would be open to any student, or alumnus, as an extra-curricular activity. In addition, the college would begin to offer a rotation of two-credit-hour classes “in the following areas: Acting, Playwriting, Directing, and Literature and Criticism of the Stage.” Enrollment in these credit-bearing courses would require student participation—as actors or producers—of Villa Players’ productions. These recommendations were approved, as the 1963–1964 VMC College Catalogue lists all four courses, each one of which was “offered once every four years on a cyclical basis” (“Report of Committee to Develop Dramatic Studies,” January 1963, TMU Archives; “Speech and Drama,” VMC College Catalogue, 1963–1964, pp. 96-97).

Art laboratory, 1958, with students designing a mosaic coffee table. (TMU Archives)

Of the three Fine Arts at VMC, however, the Art Department continued to lead the way. Indeed, by the 1950s, the college begin to consider art as a possible degree opportunity. That development occurred in 1953, when VMC’s affiliation with the Catholic University of America led to a move to promote academic concentrations, a kind of alternative to the formerly named degrees. One of those was Art (Saelinger, pp. 34-35; “Catholic University Affiliation for Villa,” Kentucky Post, March 14, 1952, p. 1).

By Fall 1953, Villa Madonna College offered courses in a total of eighteen concentrations — including for the first time in its history as far as can be ascertained — Art as a specialized program Sr. Mary Carlotta, as Chair, paved the way ahead. A beloved teacher, she seemed equally embraced by the community. A 1955 newspaper article, for instance. stated that she was serving as a judge in a statewide poster contest for “Good Posture Week” (“Villa Offering Wide Variety of Courses,” Kentucky Post, August 27, 1953, p. 15; “Nun Is Posture Contest Judge,” Kentucky Post, May 5, 1955, p. 18).

In general, the Fine Arts had very little wiggle room to fit into the class schedules of those majoring in other disciplines at VMC. Unlike modern general requirements, liberal arts colleges like VMC had highly structured requirements for graduation, leaving little opportunity for elective courses. In fact, VMC’s “Requirements for Graduation” (now called by the parlance of “General Education” or “Core Curriculum”) for all students in 1957–1958 included these 3+ credit-hour semester courses:

• 6 philosophy courses.
• 4 English courses, plus an English Prose Composition Examination in the Sophomore year.
• 2 courses each in 2 of the following disciplines: Intermediate Foreign Language (that is, at least the second year of a foreign language); Mathematics; or Science.
• 2 History courses (Modern Europe to 1815, and Modern Europe since 1815).
• Sophomore Comprehensive and Senior Comprehensive Examinations.
• Religion: Catholic students had to enroll in a religion course “each semester in full-time residence up to a maximum of eight semesters.” “Other students” (non-Catholics, as they were called in the 1950s) were “required to take 6 semester hours of approved substitute courses” (VMC College Catalogue, 1957–58, p. 26).

Professor O’Shaughnessy leading a Freehand Drawing class, 1957. (TMU Archives)

Understandably, Sr. Mary Carlotta tried desperately to find available times in the schedules of other disciplines, especially the Sciences, when she might offer Art electives. President Rev. John Murphy shared her frustration when, in answer to her question regarding scheduling, he wrote that while he recognized the value of the Fine Arts, the “so-called ‘Arts’ or ‘liberalizing courses’” [today’s equivalent of a Core Curriculum] required a minimum of 74 semester credit hours. In addition, most degree programs at VMC required at least 36 semester credit hours. Further, these degree credit hours did not include prerequisite courses, especially those needed for placement in upper-level college science, foreign language, and other courses. To make matters even tighter, earning a Teacher’s Certificate in Biology or Chemistry required “24 or 26 more credit hours” (Fr. Murphy to Sr. Mary Carlotta, May 14, 1953, TMU Archives).

In addition to scheduling challenges, Art laboratories at VMC were limited. For example, in a letter to Rev. Murphy in 1954, Sr. Mary Carlotta suggested moving the Mechanical Drawing laboratory from “its present damp and unhealthy” location in the basement of Aquinas Hall to a place where students could “work on their projects, undisturbed, whenever they have free time.” Then, as now, well-lighted art studios were the norm, not basement ones (Sr. Mary Carlotta to Fr. Murphy, February 7, 1954, TMU Archives).

Among the Art Department’s early emphases was that traditionally tied to the field of Art Education, as evidenced by a 1956 newspaper article announcing that a course in School Art was being offered in VMC’s Evening College. Its instructor was Hubert Kohrman, who joined the VMC Art Department in February 1956. Kohrman’s credentials were impressive, yet clearly related to the practical applications of art. His full-time position was Advertising Manager for Wadsworth Electric Manufacturing in Covington. A graduate of the University of Southern California, he had “attended the Central Academy of Commercial Art in Cincinnati, the Cincinnati Art Academy, the University of Cincinnati, and Xavier University where he received a certificate in business administration” His School Art course was designed to focus on “studies on the Christian philosophy of art; techniques and principles followed in elementary school art; and a familiarization with various new projects and materials in teaching art” (“Villa Is Offering School Art Course,” Kentucky Post, September 6, 1956, p. 9).

Sr. Mary Carlotta, whose last year as Chair of Art was 1955–1956, had established a firm foundation for the VMC Art Department. In 1956–1957, Miss Celeste O’Shaughnessy became Acting Chair. VMC’s Art degree required the following courses: Art Structure I and II; Drawing and Composition I and II; Art Reading List; Freehand and Figure Drawing; History of Art I and II; Art Coordinating Seminar; and Applied Design. Students were also required to submit “two pieces” of their art for retention “by the College for its permanent student collection” (VMC College Catalogue, 1955–1956; VMC College Catalogue, 1956–1957).

In the following academic year, Miss O’Shaughnessy was still listed as “Acting Chairman,” but two additional faculty members were listed, Mr. Kohrman and Mr. [William] Glass. Rev. Murphy was working with Miss O’Shaughnessy to find “someone with a master’s degree or its equivalent” to avoid being “in trouble with the Southern Association of the State Department of Education otherwise.” Perhaps William T. Glass fulfilled that credentialing, as he held an MFA. Glass would only remain though the end of 1959, however, as he accepted a job at the noted Rookwood Pottery in Cincinnati. Meanwhile, O’Shaughnessy pursued graduate work at the University of Notre Dame during the summer months (VMC College Catalogue, 1957–1958, p. 28; Fr. Murphy to Miss Celeste O’Shaughnessy, May 10, 1957, TMU Archives; VMC College Catalogue, 1958–1959, p. 28; Triskele, 1958, p. 16; Fr. Murphy to Stanley Sessler, May 10, 1957, TMU Archives).

Miss Celeste O’Shaughnessy (1915–1968) became the linchpin of VMC’s fledgling yet growing Art Department. She graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 1937, with a BSAA in Applied Arts and Art Education. Attending graduate school summer sessions at the University of Notre Dame, she earned her MFA in 1961. Professor O’Shaughnessy chaired the VMC Art Department from the 1950s until 1968. On February 10, 1968, she died at Good Samaritan Hospital in Cincinnati, following a bout with cancer. She was only 52 years of age. For years, she resided with her mother, Mrs. Marie Uihlein O’Shaughnessy, in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, and commuted to the college (“Commencement Exercises, Summer Session 1961, The University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Indiana,” p. 14; “College Art Chairman, Miss O’Shaughnessy Dies,” Cincinnati Post, February 12, 1968, p. 30; “Celeste O’Shaughnessy,” The Lawrenceburg Press, February 15, 1968, p. 2).

The family name of O’Shaughnessy carried great weight in Catholic circles in Northern Kentucky. Celeste’s grandfather was Peter O’Shaughnessy (1843–1926), an Irish immigrant to Kentucky, who began as a foreman at the James Walsh Distillery in Covington, Kentucky, and eventually became Walsh’s partner. The Walsh and O’Shaughnessy families became the two major contributors to the construction of Covington’s magnificent Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption. One of Peter’s daughters was named Celeste. In 1906, she gave away her jewels and joined the Sisters of Divine Providence of Kentucky, then located at their motherhouse at Mt. St. Martin in Newport. Two years later, in 1908, Peter O’Shaughnessy donated land to the Sisters of Divine Providence to build a new motherhouse in Melbourne, Kentucky, which was completed in 1919. Sr. Celeste Marie eventually became Mother Celeste Marie, that is Provincial of the congregation, serving from 1937 until 1965 (Michael R. Sweeney, “O’Shaughnessy, Peter,” in Paul A. Tenkotte and James C. Claypool, The Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2009, pp. 692-693; “Forsakes Her Millions for Convent,” Kentucky Post, August 16, 1906, p. 5).

Professor Celeste O’Shaughnessy, 1967. (TMU Archives)

Miss Celeste O’Shaughnessy was the namesake of her well-known aunt, who in turn was a sister of Miss O’Shaughnessy’s father, William P. O’Shaughnessy, a native of Newport, Kentucky. In the early 1900s, James Walsh Distillery shifted its operations from Covington to Lawrenceburg, where Walsh Distillery also owned the Rossville Distillery. William O’Shaughnessy, and his brothers Eugene and Victor, sold the Rossville Distillery in the 1930s to the Joseph P. Seagram Distillery. William became President of the James Walsh Distillery in 1933. In 2023, the distillery operations continue as MGP of Indiana (“O’Shaughnessy Rites Set Friday,” Kentucky Post, November 17, 1948, p. 1).

Under Professor O’Shaughnessy’s leadership, the Art Department at VMC gained much respect. She mentored many students, including Bernard “Bernie” L. Schmidt, who graduated in 1958. Schmidt earned a scholarship for graduate studies at the University of Notre Dame, where his mentor was noted liturgical sculptor Ivan Mestorvic. Later, Professor O’Shaughnessy hired Schmidt to teach at Villa Madonna/Thomas More College, where he remained until accepting a position at Edgecliff College (later part of Xavier University) in Cincinnati in 1978 (“Wins Scholarship for Fine Arts Study,” Kentucky Post, August 9, 1958, p. 4; Judy Crist, “Retrospective: Remembering Bernie Schmidt Jr. ’58 [1936–2013], Moreover, Spring 2014, p. 25).

Born in the same year as Professor O’Shaughnessy was Sr. Mary Sienna Engelbrink, S.N.D. (1915–2014). Holding an MFA from the Catholic University of America, Sr. Mary Sienna principally devoted herself to teaching art in Catholic elementary schools in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. I recall her as an art teacher at St. Agnes Elementary School in Fort Wright, Kentucky, where we students loved her teaching techniques and her warm, caring personality. In the 1960s, she taught art for a number of years at VMC/Thomas More (Obituary for Sr. Mary Sienna Engelbrink, S.N.D., Kentucky Enquirer, January 21, 2014).

With the death of Professor O’Shaughnessy in 1968, one era passed and another began. Described by her niece as “very dedicated to students and to teaching,” Professor Celeste O’Shaughnessy was “quiet” and unassuming, a “sweet, good person.” Dr. Judith Marlowe echoed these sentiments, noting that she was “very contemplative and dignified,” but not the least aloof. Clearly, Professor O’Shaughnessy loved teaching, a characteristic that was reflected in the personalities and faces of so many other dedicated VMC faculty. They were the lifeblood of old VMC, the glue that held it together, the foundations upon which solid academic programs arose and blossomed (Telephone interview of Mary Anne Benedict by Paul A. Tenkotte, January 25, 2023; Telephone interview of Dr. Judith Marlowe by Tenkotte, January 25, 2023).

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, and along the Ohio River). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and the author of many books and articles.

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