Mother Mary of the Annunciation Beaumont is the “founder” we celebrate each year on Founder’s Day. Mary Beaumont was born in Wales in 1818 and later moved with her family to Lancashire in England. Lancashire was a center for Catholic recusants, those who remained Catholic in England after Catholicism was banned after the English Reformation. They lived their Catholicism in a rather secret fashion, celebrating Mass whenever a priest could sneak past the “priest hunters.”
Since Catholic schools were banned in England, many Catholics sent their sons and daughters to Catholic schools on the Continent. When Mary was 14, she was sent to the Ursuline school at Bologne-sur-Mer in France. The Ursulines already had an excellent reputation for the education of young women and central to their educational model was their “motherliness.”
Mary Beaumont very much enjoyed her years with the Ursulines, and while she returned home to England once her education was completed, a few years later at age 25 she decided to return to Boulonge-sur-Mer to enter the Ursuline Congregation.
Father Amadeus Rappe was chaplain to the Ursuline Sisters for the years that Mary Beaumont was a student and Mary had great respect and admiration for him. Responding to the call for missionary priests in Ohio, Father Rappe left the Ursulines in 1840 and ministered to the Catholics in the Toledo area for a number of years until in 1847 he was made bishop of Cleveland (which at the time included the whole north half of the state of Ohio—the western reserve). One of his major concerns was Catholic education and so he immediately begged the Ursulines to send him some sisters to start a school. A number of issues prevented the Ursulines from coming, but in 1850 four Ursuline Sisters volunteered to leave home and travel to Cleveland to open the first Catholic school in Bishop Rappe’s new diocese.
At the age of 32, Mother Mary of the Annunciation Beaumont was named superior of this new venture. Along with the four sisters, a lay woman named Arabella Seymour, who had conducted a school of her own, joined the group. Leaving Boulogne-sur-Mer on July 16, 1850, they, were accompanied by Bishop Rappe and a few priests and seminarians that the bishop had “collected” on his journey to France. The ship landed in New York harbor on August 6 and two days later the nuns were in Cleveland at the house that had been purchased for them on Euclid Ave, just east of Public Square.
Under the leadership of Mother Mary Beaumont, the sisters set to work preparing the convent and the school. They advertised that they would be opening a school for girls on September 6, less than a month after their arrival! On the opening day of school, with everything prepared, 300 girls of varying ages showed up. The school was an instant success and the Ursuline “motherliness” endeared the sisters to the girls and their parents.
In 1854, Mother Mary of the Annunciation, having seen governments confiscate church property in France, sought to incorporate her school. She did incorporate “The Ursuline Academy of Cleveland” with the state of Ohio. It was only the second corporation in Cleveland.
An example of the motherliness of the Ursulines was their concern for the students who were coming all the way from the west side in all kinds of weather to attend the Academy. The Ursulines’ rule made them contemplatives which meant that they could not leave their monastery. In France and in Cleveland, the sisters remained in the monastery and the students came to them. Reflecting on Saint Angela Merici’s counsel to adapt to the needs of the time, Mother Mary of the Annunciation and the other sisters decided in 1853 to respond to the call of Saint Patrick’s parish on the near west side for a school. Each morning three sisters would get into a coach with all the curtains drawn to go to the west side to teach young girls and return each evening to their convent. Other parishes continued to beg the Ursulines to open a school in their parishes and they did. In 1858 the sisters began schools at Saint Mary’s and Saint Bridget’s, and in 1860 they expanded again to Immaculate Conception and Saint Malachi’s parishes.
Mother Mary Beaumont was a woman of great energy and vision, but her life was not without sorrow and the pain of loss. In 1861 two young novices died and that same year Mother St. Charles, who was one of the four Ursuline to come from France, died at the age of 41. Two other founding sisters: Mother des Seraphines and Mother St. Benoit returned to France. That left Mother Mary Beaumont and Mother St. Austin, the former Arabella Seymour, as the only two surviving pioneers.
Recognizing the need for higher education for Catholic women, Mother made a rather bold request of the State of Ohio and sought a charter to open a women’s college in Cleveland. She fulfilled all the necessary requirements, and on November 17, 1871, Ursuline College became the first college for women in Ohio and among the very first Catholic colleges for women in the United States. It was located in the same building at Ursuline Academy and focused on a liberal arts education.
By 1878 the original Euclid Avenue building was too small to encompass Ursuline Academy, Ursuline College and the growing number of sisters. By 1875 the community had grown to 86 members. Mother Mary Beaumont and her advisors found a new property in Nottingham along Lake Erie. They bought the property and immediately went to work on a building that would serve as a high school, as a branch of Ursuline College (1879-1896), allow for boarding students and house some of the growing number of sisters. It was called the Ursuline Academy of Villa Angela. It opened its doors in September of 1878.
In 1880 Mother Mary Beaumont fell ill and suffered for a number of months. She went home to the Lord she had served so faithfully on March 9, 1881 at the age of 63. She left behind her a true testament to the value of the Catholic education of women. Having arrived in Cleveland with four companions and the dream to serve Bishop Rappe and the poor people of his diocese, she left this world with Ursuline sisters operating a college, a high school and a number of parish grade schools in Cleveland. Under her leadership the number of young women who became Ursuline was large enough to expand their reach to Toledo (1854), Tiffen (1863) and Youngstown (1874).
Her obituary in the March 17th issue of the Plain Dealer speaks to the esteem in which she was held:
The Ursulines of Cleveland have good cause to weep
for the loss of their dead and much loved superior,
and the many who have been educated under her
care have cause to remember her in kindness and
prayer for the lessons of virtue and example of
Christian devotion she gave them in her long
Career of usefulness and steady fidelity.
This is the woman we celebrate each year on Founder’s Day.
Patrick Riley, D.Min. is the Director of Development at Ursuline College.