Skip to main content

Tucson - SS. Peter and Paul School

Post card.  SSPP Church

1933, SS. Peter and Paul Church post card.

In January of 1933, Father Leo Gattes wrote to Sister Leonita of the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati soliciting a supply of sisters for his two-year-old parish school, SS. Peter and Paul in Tucson, Arizona. Gattes, the brother of Sister Louis Adelaide, a Black Cap Sister from Cincinnati, was a former insurance commissioner in the Diocese of Pittsburgh stationed at SS. Peter and Paul Parish. Although the fledgling school was staffed by Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, Father Gattes was hoping to make a big change to expand the school and he knew the well-known reputation of the Sisters of Charity as a teaching order.

Mother Mary Regina of the Cincinnati community could not fulfill Father Gattes’ request, but she sent his letter to Mother Eveline Fisher at Seton Hill. “Meanwhile, Sister Louis Adelaide, ‘anxious that her brother should have the Black Caps when he could not have her own community,’ wrote him upon Mother Regina’s advice to apply to Seton Hill at once. Father Gattes’ cordial invitation came by telegram February 9” (Community Newsletter, March 13, 1933).

Mother Eveline Fisher

Mother Eveline Fisher

In his plea, Father Gattes assured Mother Eveline that “of all the cities and communities of the West, I hold with absolute conviction, Tucson has held her own in these days of readjustment…Do not imagine we are inviting you to a ‘wild Country,’” (Community Newsletter, March 13, 1933). Perhaps, most providentially, Father Gattes continued, “there is a great future for some community of sisters in Tucson.”

The seed was planted and Mother Eveline need only to agree.

On March 11, 1933, Mother Eveline and her astute Council made the fateful decision to send the first of many Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill to the Southwest.

In May of 1933, Mother Eveline visited Father Patterson and the Tucson mission, but in her letter of May 30th, she writes, "It looks as though Tucson is now but a dream. However, we will not relinquish hope of some day laboring in the great Southwest, if God sees fit to grant us this pleasure." God must have seen fit because the Sisters would arrive in September!

The first group of four Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill to arrive in Arizona were Srs. Emily Miller, Cecelia Vincent McCartney, Francis Mary Coleman, and Rose Catherine Ward. Shortly before their arrival, a devastating and deadly train crash cause by a collapsed bridge in Tucumcari, New Mexico injured two Sisters of Charity from the community on a vacation. Mother Eveline accompanied the second band of Sisters on the train as far as Tucumcari to ensure that her charges would make it safely across the reconstituted bridge. Srs. M. Ermanilda Knepley, M. Estelle Hensler, Mary Inez Clark, and James Marie Malone made it safely to their destination.

Group photo of first Sisters missioned to Tucson, Arizona, SS Peter and Paul School.

First group of Sisters missioned to SS Peter and Paul School in Tucson, Arizona, 1933. 

SSPP School opening article, Father Patterson

SS Peter and Paul School opening enrollment article, September 1933, Father Patterson pictured at right. 

Parish pastor Father Joseph N. Patterson and assistant pastor, Father Leo Gattes, greeted them upon their arrival. The community of Tucson was in full support of the Sisters of Charity. The Sisters equally embraced the people, landscape, and diverse culture of Arizona.

Following are excerpts of the letters from that first mission year:

“We enjoyed our ride to Oracle last Sunday. I think we had our pictures taken beside every species of cacti that we could find.”

“General George B. McClellan’s great-grandson is one of the non-Catholic pupils of our school.”

“I’ve taken to farming on a large scale, in spite of teasing. The future members of the Tucson mission, years hence, will enjoy, I hope, the fancy grapes, oranges and grapefruit that are planted in tin cans and gracing the garden wall. Yesterday, marigolds were transplanted along the side of our ‘dobe together with a branch of grease wood. It is the grease wood that gives the air such a delicious odor in early morning when the dew is heavy.”

“We went for a picnic to Mount Lemmon, one of the Catalina’s, a drive of about seventy-five miles from Tucson, although we can see the peak from our lawn. I’m afraid I lack the ability to describe it. Picture a mountain with a road blasted shelf-like up the side, zigzagging in a series of s’s’ through desert flowers and pine forests. The ascent begins in the desert foothills of every specie of cacti and ends in a pine grove at an altitude of about 8,050 feet.”

Sisters on their way to the Grand Canyon.  Stop at Mingus Mt. Inn.  Sr. Helen Marie Haley, Ann Vincent McDonough, Mary Denis McKinley.

1948, Sisters on their way to the Grand Canyon. They stopped at Mingus Mt. Inn. Srs. Helen Marie Haley, Ann Vincent McDonough, and Mary Denis McKinley.

Cafeteria of SSPP school. Children sit at card-table size tables (4 students)

1935, Cafeteria of SSPP School. 

 In Mexico.  Sisters paid to have their pictures taken with the burros carrying wood.  Srs. Helen Marie Haley, Mary Timothy Adams, Ethelreda Merz.

1947, In Mexico, Sisters paid to have their pictures taken with "burros" carrying wood. Srs. Helen Marie Haley, Mary Timothy Adams, and Ethelreda Merz.

In addition to their parochial school work, the Sisters began an early student teaching program in collaboration with the University of Arizona. Training began in the classes of Srs. Mary Felix Carey, M. Estelle Hensler, Suzanne McIntyre, and James Marie Malone. According to Sr. James Marie, they pioneered the “student teaching” concept at the state university level. In the 1930s, Sister Estelle Hensler provided deaf and blind catechetical classes. Sister Thomasine Steele would later continue the ministry.

Sr. Francis Mary was known for her service with the altar boys, Knights of the Altar, who became known to Armed Forces chaplains around the world.

Sr. Francis Mary was also known for her gifted teaching ability. Brinton Brown, a former student of SSPP, wrote, "I remember during the mid-1930s that the superintendent of public schools spent the day at SSPP and was so impressed with the quality of Sr. Francis Mary's teaching in the first grade, and the response of the children to her that he offered her $300 a month to teach in the public school...She informed him that she was not teaching for money, but for the glory of God."

A class at Solomonville, AZ, mission. Sr. Helen Louise Connelly, Sr. Estelle Hensler.  Boys took off their straw hats for photo

c. 1930s, A CCD class at Solomonville, Arizona mission. Srs. Helen Louise Connelly and Estelle Hensler pose with the children. The boys were kind enough to take off their straw hats for the photo. 

 CCD class at Solomonville, AZ, mission.  Sr. Helen Louise Connelly at left.  Sr. Estelle Hensler, right.

c. 1930s, Srs. Helen Louise Connelly and Estelle Hensler conduct CCD classes at the Solomonville, Arizona mission.

The Girls' Choir of SSPP in their robes and veils.  Bishop Davis, Pastor, at left.  Sr. Mary Inez Clark, director, at right.

1935, The Girls' Choir of SSPP in their robes and veils.  Bishop Davis, Pastor, at left.  Sr. Mary Inez Clark, director, at right.

Throughout their time in Tucson, the Sisters set up catechetical centers at the Yaqui Indian Village, Fort Lowell Mexican Mission Church, and at SS. Peter and Paul. Srs. Marian Clare McGurgan and de Paul Lippert taught religious education to Catholics at the Navajo Barfield Sanatarium. Catholic vacation programs were initiated in many local communities. In later years, Srs. Mary Lou Palas, Inez Mary Beckel, and Thomasine Steel would minister to the elderly at Forrester’s Old Pueblo Casita.

From the early years teaching in parochial schools and catechetical centers to the acceptance of leadership roles in social service and in the Diocese of Tucson, the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill have contributed much to the people of the “Old Pueblo.”

Fun Fact: The Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill considered purchasing the Hotel Esplendor, a failed tourist hotel project on a hill two miles north of the Mexican border in Nogales, Arizona (now Rio Rico) in 1933 for a future "Seton Hill of the West."

SS Peter and Paul Faculty List

Sisters of Charity missioned to SS Peter and Paul School in Tucson, Arizona. Click the list to see more.