Marking its 150th anniversary in a history that has spanned from the post-Civil War years to the digital age, the ladies of the Academy of the Holy Cross in Kensington returned on Sept. 24 to the place where the school began, for a Mass celebrated by Cardinal Donald Wuerl at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington.

“For 150 years, the Academy of the Holy Cross has carried out the mission of being a witness to Jesus Christ,” the cardinal said at a Mass attended by Sisters of the Holy Cross whose order founded and continues to sponsor the school, and by students, teachers, staff, administrators, parents and alumnae.

Cardinal Wuerl said the Holy Cross Sisters and the school community that they established have been “an extraordinary gift to the Church, and an extraordinary gift to the community.”

After serving in Washington as nurses during the Civil War, the Sisters of the Holy Cross founded the Academy of the Holy Cross in 1868, with the school first sharing facilities with St. Matthew’s parish school. In 1879, the school moved to 1312 Massachusetts Ave., N.W., in an address later occupied by the headquarters for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

From 1910 until the mid-1950s, Holy Cross held its classes at its campus on Upton Street, N.W., west of Rock Creek Park, and the academy moved to its present home in Kensington in suburban Maryland in 1956.

At the beginning of the anniversary Mass, Kathleen Prebble, the academy’s president and CEO, noted, “How fitting it is that we return to the place where the Sisters of the Holy Cross founded a school for girls in 1868.” Leading applause for the sisters, she said, “Their legacy has left a permanent mark on all of our lives.”

Songs at the Mass, including the school’s Alma Mater at the end of the liturgy, were led by Holy Cross students, alumnae and staff, and students served on the altar and read the prayers of the faithful.

In his homily, Cardinal Wuerl noted that the Sisters of the Holy Cross founded the school for girls 150 years ago to prepare them for the future, and to help them build a better world by sharing Christ’s love generously with others, knowing that Jesus offers the answers to all of life’s most important questions.

The school’s mission, said the cardinal, reflects a statement made by Blessed Basil Moreau, the founder of the Congregation of Holy Cross sisters, priests and brothers, who once said, “The present determines the future by the education that is given to youth.”

Noting the importance of Catholic schools in today’s world, Cardinal Wuerl said, “Looking to the future of Catholic education, and to the future of Holy Cross Academy, we should do so with hope, confidence and enthusiasm, knowing that we bring something to those we teach that no one else can. We share the story of Jesus.”

After the Mass, members of the Holy Cross community reflected on the academy’s ongoing legacy.

Holy Cross Sister Katherine Kase – who became the principal of the Academy of the Holy Cross in 1992 and who led the school until 2008 in a period of expansion at a time when single-sex Catholic schools faced enrollment challenges locally and nationwide – praised the school’s founders for having the vision to see what was needed at that time and to provide an educational program for young women that has endured for 150 years. She said Blessed Moreau stressed that Catholic education is more than human work – it’s the work of God.

The legacy of the Sisters of the Holy Cross in the Washington area includes their service in a variety of ministries, including staffing many local Catholic elementary schools, and founding and sponsoring Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring and the new Holy Cross Hospital in Germantown.

Speaking of the impact that she hopes that the academy has on its students, Sister Katherine said, “I hope they always have that sense of gratitude, that they’ve been gifted, and that they need to give to others and be a gift to others.”

The guests at the anniversary Mass included Holy Cross Sister Grace Shonk, who served at the school for 49 years from 1967-2016 in a variety of roles, including as a math teacher, principal and assistant principal. In a later email interview, she said the anniversary made her feel “a deep sense of gratitude to God and to the Sisters of the Holy Cross, as well as to all those who have served at the school, both lay and religious.”

“Faculty and staff through the years have given themselves tirelessly to the school’s mission of educating young women in a Christ-centered community,” Sister Grace said.  “The lives of our alumnae give constant witness to the success of these efforts and are a cause of joy.” 

Sister Grace said she believes the spirit of the school’s founders “is alive and well within the walls of the Academy today” and can be seen in the excellent school programs that students participate in, and in the dedication of the faculty and staff and the involvement of parents, who all help bring the school’s mission to life.

“The focus remains on developing women of courage, compassion, and scholarship who will be ready and eager to contribute to the building of a just and peaceful society within their families and within our global society,” she said.

Claire Helm, the academy’s president from 2008 until her retirement in 2013, said she continues to be inspired by the legacy of service that has remained a hallmark of the school throughout its history.

“What a fabulous and amazing legacy the sisters created. That legacy continues on in the students, faculty and parents who’ve embraced the mission of the school,” said Helm. “I see it as a great gift to this area, and I’m grateful to have been part of it.”

Kathleen Prebble, the academy’s president who welcomed guests to the anniversary Mass, in an interview afterward echoed those words of appreciation for the Holy Cross Sisters. “Part of their legacy from Blessed Moreau is to go where there’s a need,” she said. “That’s what we’re trying to teach our girls, as they take this gift out into the world, that they’re able to serve in some way where there’s a need.”

Lisa Slater, a 1982 graduate of Holy Cross and mother of four children, said the school “taught us service first. Like Cardinal Wuerl said, we want to make the world a better place.”

Slater, who formerly served on the academy’s board, said, “They gave me a great education, and a better understanding of my faith so we can go out and practice it.” The school also gave her “the best friends anyone could ask for,” she said, noting that the day before, she and 11 of her classmates had gotten together again. “Once a Holy Cross girl, always a Holy Cross girl,” Slater said, smiling.

The school nurse at the academy, Kathleen Burgess Clark, is also a 1982 graduate of Holy Cross. She has five daughters – four are graduates of the academy, and the youngest daughter, Emily, is now a junior there. Clark also has two sons who went to Catholic school at Gonzaga College High School in Washington. After balancing a career working at a hospital and raising her children, Clark returned to her alma mater eight years ago to work as a nurse there.

Reflecting on what she learned as a student at Holy Cross, Clark said, “Just that we could live our faith out each day, in the classroom, on the field, and with our friends. We continue to share that today.” She added, “What I learned at Holy Cross is you can see the face of Christ in everyone you meet.”

Mary Muldoon, a member of the current senior class at Holy Cross, said she appreciates the schools’ diversity, where she has become friends with and learned alongside fellow students from many different backgrounds.

“I’ve met so many great people, and those relationships will last,” she said.

Theresa Brogan, another senior at Holy Cross, said, “It’s like a family to me.”

Brogan, who has Down syndrome, participates in the Moreau Options Program at the academy, an inclusive educational program for students with intellectual disabilities. She participated in the anniversary Mass as an altar server, and she also serves in peer ministry at her school, supporting other students in living their faith.

Her mother Mary Brogan said that Theresa’s education at the Academy of the Holy Cross has “meant so much to her – her growth as a person and her growth in her faith… She’s been able to grow into the person God wanted her to be. It’s been such a beautiful journey."