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Our Rich History: Just as languages, cultures evolve, so has teaching of foreign languages at Thomas More

By Dr. Raymond G. Hebert
Thomas More University

Part 78 of our series, “Retrospect and Vista II”: Thomas More College/University, 1971–2021

In her Retrospect and Vista about the first fifty years of Villa Madonna College/Thomas More College (1921–1971) Sr. Irmina Saelinger noted that, in 1929, for an academic program at a “senior college” to be given accreditation there had to be a “minimum of eight departments” chaired by personnel with a PhD degree. In response, the three orders of women religious based in the diocese (Benedictine Sisters, Sisters of Notre Dame, and Sisters of Divine Providence) agreed that “each community should be responsible for certain departments by supplying qualified chairmen as soon as possible and trained teaching staff for each department” (Saelinger, p. 11; TMU Archives).

Sister Mary of the Incarnation, C.D.P., PhD, Head of the Department of Modern Languages, beginning in 1929. (Triskele, 1948, p. 8)

Two of those eight departments established in 1929 were in the Languages: Modern Languages, covered by the Sisters of Divine Providence, with Sister Mary of the Incarnation Byrne, who would soon after complete her PhD; and Ancient (or Classical) Languages, to be covered by the Benedictine Sisters with Sister Miriam Annunciata Adams as the first Chair (TMU Archives; Saelinger, p. 11).

In his 1962 dissertation “The History and Status of Villa Madonna College 1921–1961,” Thomas Hanna reported that in 1960–1961, Sister Mary Bernadine Berman, O.S.B., chaired the Classical Languages Department (she succeeded Sister Miriam in September 1942) and Sister Mary Hilarine Seiler, C.D.P., headed Modern Languages. In Classical Languages, one of the regular instructors was Monsignor Leick, who also served as Dean of the College. Along with Msgr. Leick, Sr. Mary Virginia also taught Latin as an adjunct in those years as did later, Reverend John Ramsey and Reverend Paul Brophy (Hanna, pp. 242-243; TMU Archives). Significantly, Latin and Greek were never general requirements and yet according to the records, in the first decade and until World War II, “the enrollment in Latin was approximately 100%” (Hanna, p. 243). Meanwhile, between the war and the 1960s, interest in Classical Languages waned, with few majors in the late 1940s and perhaps an average of one per year between 1951 and 1959. By 1961, Sr. M. Bernardine was the only Classical Languages instructor remaining, and in time, as the college’s yearbook the Triskele reveals, the reference was to only one combined Languages Department (TMU Archives).

Meanwhile, in the Modern Languages in the same period, classes were taught in French, Spanish, German, and Russian. The files show Sister Hilarine Seiler, C.D.P., as the chair for decades. Other faculty included Sr. Mary Rosina Fuehrer, C.D.P., PhD, who was even described by Dr. Hanna as the “Chairman of the German Department” (p. 245). Also listed as an adjunct was Mr. Alexander Dumbadse, who taught Russian and others who taught Spanish.

Among Sr. Hilarine’s insights about the department was its commitment to offering classes in the evenings, on Saturdays, and in the summer for the community. This matched the commitment to helping students not only speak and write in a second language but “to get acquainted with their attitude toward religion, culture, economy amusements—in a word, a sympathetic understanding of another culture’s problems” (Hanna, p. 245). In addition, while addressing the ups and downs of the field, particularly post WWII, Sister M. Hilarine suggested that the 1956 decision to make German a separate department was possibly to make Sr. M. Rosina happy.

Sister Mary Bernardine, O.S.B.; Sister Mary Hilarine, C.D.P.; Sister Anne Gertrude (later Sister Alice), C.D.P., and Sister Mary Rosina, C.D.P. All of them held PhD’s. These four sisters played major roles from the 1940s onward in merging the “Classical” (Latin and Greek) and Modern Languages into a single combined department of Foreign Languages. Sister Bernardine, O.S.B., was an early chair of the Classical Languages and, in time, the only remaining faculty member of the original group. She remained until the 1960s, originally with Sister Hilarine, C.D.P., and later Sister Rosina and Sister Anne Gertrude. This is a unique photo of all four of them. (TMU Archives)

In the late 1950’s, the college added language laboratories, which were becoming popular at colleges and universities nationwide. In 1960 two secular missionaries from Spain were hired for teaching Spanish, assuring some continuity there: one of them, Miss Maria Pilar Sanchez, taught exclusively in Spanish, while the second, Miss Magdalena Casajuana could also teach French classes. Languages had a significant place in the liberal arts curriculum with adequate staffing, even though there was not a core curriculum requirement for languages in the 1960s (TMU Archives; Hanna, pp 246-247).

A close look at the 1960s issues of the Triskele shows a single department called “The Language Department.” In 1962, the faculty photo includes six full-time faculty. The 1964 issue features Miss Barallat and especially the department’s two shining stars, Sr. M. Bernardine, OSB, and Sr. M. Rosina, O.S.B. On that page, appropriately for then as for now, the emphasis was placed on the department’s aim as “founded in the culture as well as the grammar of each nation (so that) language students are well prepared to communicate with other peoples on the common ground necessary to real understanding” (“Languages,” Triskele, 1964, p. 75).

Notably, by 1968, the growth continued, probably due to the continuity provided by Sisters Bernardine and Rosina, and a third C.D.P. addition, Sr. Anne Gertrude Landry (later to take her original name of Sr. Mary Alice Landry), also a PhD. All other faculty had changed by then, however, with a new trio of Spanish adjuncts—all male. There was also a new message, that “the Spanish, French and German departments recognize the need for a second language in many professions” (“Foreign Languages,” Triskele, 1968, pp. 60-61). That was also the first year that Villa Madonna students participated in a study abroad program. They visited Paris for two months on “scholarships awarded by the Fredin Memorial Fund administered by the Xavier University French Department” (Triskele, p. 60).

In 1967–1968, the Department of Foreign Languages (as it was then called) emphasized in the “Purpose” section of that year’s “Self-Study” how languages “expand the students’ knowledge of humanity, nature and social science” and enable them “to take advantage of many opportunities otherwise closed to them, such as study abroad (in short), acquiring an understanding of other peoples and an appreciation of their culture is a vital part of any liberal education (Department of Foreign Languages, Self-Study, p. 1). Among the relevant points made was the increase in majors from 4 in 1962 to 29 in 1967 (Self-Study, p. 2). The Self-Study listed 13 faculty, with 7 of those full-time and 5 holding PhDs. (self-study, p. 10). Most interesting—because of its omission among the wish list items at the end of the self-study — was not a single mention of a possible core curriculum requirement in a second language, a direction that had become more and more common among liberal arts institutions across the United States.

1949 photo of French language students “sharing French letters.” Left to right: William Carroll ’52, Thomas Ginney ’52, Mary Butler ’52 and Joan Feldkamp ’52. (Triskele, 1949, p. 49)

By the 1970s, a new faculty member named Dr. Maruya Jimenez served as the Thomas More College liaison to an Interinstitutional Cooperation Agreement of 1972 involving Thomas More College, the College of Mount St. Joseph (Cincinnati) and Edgecliff College (Cincinnati). In Year One, for example, Dr. Jimenez taught “conversation and composition” at Mount St. Joseph, while Dr. Pura Miyar taught “Gaucho Literature” at Thomas More. This relationship prompted Dr. Jimenez to propose a new set of Bilingual (English–Spanish) Degrees or Certificates in 1973. (Foreign Languages Correspondence 1972–1980, TMU Archives).

Sadly, the mid-1970’s were complicated years on the new suburban campus with budget issues, a vote of no confidence in the first lay president (Dr. Richard DeGraff), and the cutting of faculty and resources for a number of departments. The Department of Foreign Languages was not exempt from these issues. The Vice President for Academic Affairs, Dr. Jim Ebben, wrote in a letter to the department (November 20, 1973) that there was even a possibility that “only one section of each elementary section would be offered (in 1974–1975) and there would also be a “reduction of the number of upper-division courses.” He added, in a shocking conclusion, “that the results of these moves would mean that we could reduce the FTE of faculty teaching Foreign Languages to one each for French, German and Spanish, and one-half for Russian” (VPAA letter to Foreign Languages Department, November 20, 1973, TMU Archives).

Sr. Alice Landry, C.D.P., a twenty-five-year-plus faculty member who was Sister Gertrude Anne in her Villa Madonna College years, but later took back her original given name. She was the youngest of the three departmental “legends” who built up the Foreign Languages during the Villa Madonna College years. (TMU Archives)

Things went from bad to worse with administrative changes in 1975–1976, even though Sister Alice Landry (now with her original name) was pleased to get a promotion approved for Dr. Gunnar Everiss and also to hire Brother Frank Mazsick, who would later replace Sister Alice Landry as chair during her leave of absence. Brother Frank would be a popular instructor who had great rapport with the students. The frustrations, however, are best seen in the cryptic letter from Sr. Alice to outgoing President DeGraff on January 11, 1977, when, after 22 years at VMC/TMC, she said: “In view of what has been happening to the Foreign Language Department and to the College as a whole, in the past few years, I find it necessary to take a long-delayed sabbatical year (fall 1977 to fall 1978) (Sr. Alice Landry letter to President Richard DeGraff, January 11, 1977, TMU Archives). The approval arrived on March 7, 1977, wishing Sister Alice a “fruitful and relaxing period of leave.” One of the precipitating factors, as had been alluded to in the earlier correspondence from VPAA Ebben, was that Foreign Languages had been one of the departments targeted for cuts. It was sudden and totally unexpected but two key full-time faculty (Veveris and Jimenez, who was on semester-long sabbatical) were told: “This past August, the significant decline in our freshman class was financially overwhelming. Tragically, in view of these standards I must inform you that your appointment to Thomas More College will terminate on December 31, 1976. The Chairman of your Department has been consulted on this action (which included the elimination of Majors in Spanish and German)” (Letter from Maria del Carmen Jimenez to the Faculty Coordinating Committee asking for help, January 28, 1977, TMU Archives). This followed a letter Dr. Jimenez had received from the chair, Sr. Alice Landry, denying her supposed role in the decision and encouraging his appeal. Unfortunately, other departments also suffered a similar fate, which led to President DeGraff’s departure and a slow, difficult return to normalcy.

1962 photo of Foreign Languages faculty including the three C.D.P. “legends” and the three Secular Missionaries from Spain who spent several years in the 1960s teaching Spanish. The three C.D.P. faculty, all with PhD’s, were the heart of the department for several decades. Here are: Sister Mary Hilarine, C.D.P.; Sister Mary Rosina C.D.P.; and Sister Anne Gertrude (later Sister Alice). (TMU Archives.

By 1983, when Sr. M. Laurence Budde was the Vice President for Academic Affairs, the Foreign Languages were gaining in popularity again (letter of August 16, 1983, announcing increasing sections and a structure for the students to follow, TMU Archives), Sister Emerita McGann, C.D.P., succeeded Sr. Alice Landry in teaching French and was immediately successful and popular with the students. Nicknamed the “Blue Nun” for the color of her habit, she encouraged study abroad and traveled extensively herself. In the summer of 1987, she served as a translator for the General Chapter of the Sisters of Divine Providence of Saint Jean de Bassel, Lorraine, France, following a two-week trip to Ireland. She also regularly participated in a Missionary Cooperative Program and Appalachian Speakers Program on behalf of the C.D.P. missionaries and the Appalachian Mountain Missions. She was so effective at fundraising that after later leaving Thomas More, she became the leading fundraiser and Development Director for the Sisters of Divine Providence Motherhouse in Melbourne, Kentucky. In the meantime, her enthusiasm for teaching French and her love of students played a major role in what would become a rebounding Languages Department in the 1990s (Sr. Emerita McGann, Report on Summer Experiences in 1987 to VPAA, August 1987, TMU Archives).

In fall 1992, the college’s new degree programs in International Studies began. In the same semester, the International Studies program began to underwrite the hiring of talented adjunct instructors to initiate Japanese language classes that eventually included 101, 102, 201, and 202 level study. Further, the International Studies degree programs, requiring foreign language study, also escalated the need for—and interest in—foreign language offerings.

In 1997 the college hired Dr. Maria Garriga. Her enthusiasm for teaching was popular with students. In addition to the Spanish language, she could also teach French. With Sister Emerita McGann and then Maria Garriga in prime positions, Foreign Languages earned a renewed position of importance in Thomas More’s liberal arts curriculum. The respect for the faculty reflected itself in the inclusion of a foreign language requirement for graduation in the College’s Core Curriculum of the late 1980s.

1964 photo, featuring Sister Mary Rosina as the others listen to her read from Deutschland Review. Left to right: Sr. Mary Bernardine, O.S.B., Sr. Mary Renee, O.S.B., Vicky Bailey, S.N.D. and Sr. Mary Rosina, C.D.P. (Triskele, 1964, p. 75)

Dr. Garriga’s tenure as chair saw the introduction of an AA in Spanish (later converted to a minor) that was very popular for students in business and health-related fields. Because of student interest, courses were developed in Business Spanish, Spanish for the Health Professions, and Introduction to (Hispanic) Literature. This growth was keenly supported by Deans Ray Hebert and Brad Bielski. They encouraged the department to create a major in Spanish, which began in 2007. The BA in Spanish was innovative at the time because it included a mandatory study abroad experience, as well as a course in translation. These two features helped differentiate the program from those offered at neighboring universities. Courses were also added in Spanish and Hispanic Film (currently a part of the multi-disciplinary film minor at TMU), Latin-American literature, and a course on Masterpieces of Hispanic Literature, which alternated classic works and functioned somewhat like a book club, including presentations from other departments. For example, the iteration including “don Quijote” included presentations from the Philosophy and English Departments. At this time, Dr. Garriga became a founding member of the Greater Cincinnati Chapter of the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, which was a model chapter for the national HSF institution as it was self-funding and featured cooperation between industry and higher education. It was also a time of supporting community events and Hispanic-focused festivals, such as salsa on the square and 5 de mayo. There was an increase in Latinx students at the College, and the Spanish Club became active.

Adjunct instructor in Spanish showing students the benefits of utilizing the Language Lab for practicing vocabulary/pronunciation between class periods, 1960s. The instructor is Dr. Maria Jimenez and the C.D.P. sister is Sister Mary Hilarine who is helping out with individual tutoring aspects of the lesson. The students are Don Schmidt (freshman); Barbara McDonald (sophomore); Ken Russell (sophomore), and Kay Hickey (sophomore).

By the 21st century, Languages became an important component of the International Studies program, as well as the burgeoning Study Abroad Program that accompanied it. Ultimately, there were study abroad programs in Jamaica in conjunction with the Accountancy Department, a Border Studies Program in Mexico with the Sociology Department, programs in Guatemala and Nicaragua led by Dr. Julie Luebbers (who has been instrumental in incorporating service learning into the curriculum), and trips to Paris led by Professor Florence Dwyer, and to Spain and Costa Rica by Dr. Garriga. One major result was, thanks to Dean Hebert, the college’s membership in the Kentucky Institute for International Study (KIIS; a Kentucky Consortium for study abroad in non-English speaking nations). The two current board members representing Thomas More in KIIS are Dr. Dwyer and Dr. Luis Sierra, Chair of the History and Law Department who also serves as Director for the Thomas More Global Initiatives Office (GIO). Dr. Sierra has served as a faculty member/Director on two KIIS programs, one to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands and another to Mexico, culminating in Merida on the Yucatan Peninsula. Relationships with sister schools were established with Universidad Catolica de Avila in Spain (also a diocesan university), Universidad del Sagrado Corazon in Puerto Rico, and Universite d’Angers in France.

On the left, Sister Emerita McGann, C.D.P., who succeeded Sister Alice Landry when she went on a sabbatical from fall 1977 to fall 1978. Sr. Emerita stayed on through the latter years of the 20th century. (TMU Archives). On the right, current foreign language faculty Dr. Maria “Cari” Garriga; Dr. Julie Luebbers; Dr. Florence Dwyer. (TMU Archives)

The second decade of the 2000s has been more challenging for the department. Enrollment in the BA in Spanish declined through the late 2010s, while the minor remains popular. Ultimately, an administrative decision was made in 2022 to eliminate the BA in Spanish. Subsequent core curricular decisions reduced the language requirement to 3 hours (or one course) for all students. The department, under the leadership of Dr. Florence Dwyer, is making curricular changes to add offerings focused on culture so that the department’s storied history of helping students “get acquainted with their attitude toward religion, culture, economy amusements—in a word, a sympathetic understanding of another culture’s problems” continues. Modifications include increased cultural content, interdisciplinary opportunities with other departments, and an enhanced service component.

Just as languages and cultures themselves evolve, the Language program learns to adjust to changes in the balance of national and international politics, internal administrative decisions, and migration patterns in our communities. However, the guiding light remains consistent, as Thomas More’s mission statement asserts, to challenge students to question “their place in the world and their responsibility to others.”

Dr. Raymond G. Hebert is a Professor of History and Executive Director of the William T. Robinson III Institute for Religious Liberty at Thomas More University. He has just completed his 46th year at Thomas More and, with that background, will now serve as the General Editor of the official history of Thomas More College/University from 1971-2021. With a projected title of RETROSPECT AND VISTA II, it will serve as the sequel to Sr. Irmina Saelinger’s RETROSPECT AND VISTA, the history of the first 50 years of Thomas More College (formerly Villa Madonna College). He can be contacted at hebertr@thomasmore.edu .

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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